When Anthony Cockcroft bought a signage company more than a decade ago he didn’t expect to find a vocation in dementia care.
Find Memory Care, which is based on Burley Road, Leeds, is now a leading producer of dementia care products, used by the Alzheimer’s Society and in hundreds of hospitals and thousands of care homes across the UK. Their products also featured in Emmerdale’s recent ground-breaking dementia storyline.
But Anthony said it is all about helping sufferers live their own lives as much as possible.
The company’s involvement with dementia care began around 10 years ago through a conversation with company client, BUPA.
“We were producing standard signage for them, parking etc when they asked us about producing signage for their dementia homes.
“This was at a time when dementia and Alzheimer’s disease were becoming more prevalent but weren’t as recognised as they are today.
“BUPA wanted to help patients who were struggling to find their way around.
“We were at a bit of a loss to begin with and started researching. We worked with Stirling University which was renowned for its dementia research and at the time were recognised as a leader in the field.”
The team from Find Memory Care, led by Anthony and director Peter Rose, discovered that in order to work with a dementia sufferer’s cognitive state, signs needed to be contrasting colours, in different fonts and worked better with an image.
And the first pieces Anthony and his team worked on were toilet signs which, he explained, were vitally important.
“People with dementia don’t lose the ability to read – they just need to be able to see it. The word is still there in people’s memories, they just need help to find it.
“The toilet sign is our most critical as it affects someone’s dignity. We can never underestimate the difference it can make to someone if they are capable of finding the bathroom themselves.”
But getting it right was a real challenge.
“No one had ever tried making anything like this before and we didn’t get it right first time,” Anthony explained.
“We tested signs in the homes and once we found what was right we realised we were doing something important.
“Other care homes became interested and we decided there was more we could do and looked to develop a range of signs for dementia sufferers.
“We were in the enviable position of being able to trial them at care homes. Care workers were able to tell us what worked and what didn’t, give us suggestions about what needed to be done and through that feedback we were able to create a product that really worked.”
And the range has grown from signage to include everything from crockery to clocks and murals.
“We create a lot of our products from ideas and suggestions. I have a friend who needed a toilet sign but didn’t want it up permanently. So from that we made a label pack of signs which can be peeled off and put back in the book to use again. They are really useful for taking on holiday.”
The label packs are one of the products which featured in Emmerdale’s recent groundbreaking dementia storyline.
Anthony said: “My wife watches Emmerdale and when the storyline about Ashley Thomas being diagnosed with dementia started, she suggested I ring the studio and tell them about our work.
“I was a bit hesitant but did ring them and they were really interested in what we do.
“I went down and talked to them about the storyline and were able to provide them with products to use through the storyline.”
During his time working on dementia care products, Anthony said the whole attitude toward the disease has changed.
“Now there are a lot of people who understand the illness and understand what the client needs.”
The company now works regularly with universities as well as the NHS and is often asked for advice on whether an idea could grow into a product that really works.
“It is really nice to do something philanthropic. I know we are a business, but what we do matters to people’s lives and it is great to know we are making a difference,” Anthony said.
The company’s latest venture has taken a big step into changing the care home environment. Murals, which create familiar areas such as a cafe, bus stop, Post Office or even a pub, are being used in care homes across the country.
The murals combined with the dementia-friendly signage creates a space residents can recognise and a familiar setting such as a cafe or a bus stop prompts reminiscence and reduces anxiety levels.
“When people are happy you see changes in their demeanour,” Anthony explained.
“And changing the environment can make a big difference. The room we changed into a pub even had a bar and it soon became the most popular room in the home.
“One home had a resident who used to be a postman and he liked collecting and delivering letters to residents and the manager said she would love to have a postbox where he could collect the post. So we created a pillarbox and it went from there.
“We can create wonderful places that make both the residents and staff happier.”
Anthony said they are careful not to create a false environment but use places where people would have traditionally stopped for a chat.
“They are really just a focal point for people, a safe haven they can enjoy together and if someone is disorientated recognising that area can help them find their way around.
And it doesn’t stop there, residents can give corridors street names, old photographs of famous local landmarks can be blown up to wall size providing an instantly recognisable corridor and room doors can be transformed into a resident’s own front door.
“Reminiscence is very powerful in dementia and we keep a library of around 100,000 pictures of towns and villages from different times.”
Everything Find Memory Care produces is about dementia sufferers retaining their dignity, whether it is through finding their way around, using the bathroom or eating independently.
“People with dementia shouldn’t have to stand out,” Anthony said.
“They shouldn’t look at food and be unable to eat it, crockery should look like normal crockery and they should be able to drink from glasses.
“I was visiting a care home and saw a man who liked to have a glass of wine but was having to drink it from a sippy cup.
“I really wanted to find a way for him to enjoy his wine in a glass again and found this brilliant material during a trip to China. It is weighted and heavy, like glass, but unbreakable. The joy on his face when he saw his ‘glass’ was wonderful.”
Anthony added: “It is great to be doing something that helps people.
“And it is the first time my mum has told me she’s proud of me.”