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Supporting people with Dementia through bereavement

There are more than 850,000 people with dementia in the UK and many of them will experience bereavement at some time. 

When the relative of a person with dementia dies, it raises lots of questions around funeral arrangements and as an industry, it’s important that we are in a position to help guide families through the added challenges that dementia brings at what is already a difficult time. In most situations, including them in planning a funeral, as well as the service itself, can help them express their grief and deal with the emotions that come with the loss. 

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Neville Funerals has become one of the first ‘Dementia Friendly’ funeral directors in Bedfordshire, committed to ensuring that customers with dementia feel at ease and supported during a bereavement. 

Over the last few months, the Neville Funerals’ team have undertaken the Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Friends training designed to raise awareness and understanding of dementia, offering practical advice on how best to work with individuals and families living with the condition.   

Dementia is often exacerbated by a bereavement. Individuals can be left behind by a partner who was a carer and feel incredibly alone, or are struggling to understand why a family member has passed away. We have the opportunity to ease some of this distress, and support family members through the funeral process and beyond. 

Planning a funeral is understandably a very distressing time, even more so for people with dementia. Ensuring that our clients and their families feel at ease and comfortable during a bereavement is of paramount importance to us.  

The Dementia Friends training has demonstrated the importance of awareness and understanding as well as suggesting a number of practical steps we can take to ease distress both for the person with dementia and their families.  

Here are some best practice tips and advice on how to include someone with dementia in funeral arrangements and support them through the bereavement:

Be prepared

Before meeting a person with dementia, it may be useful to meet with the family to understand more about them, their background, abilities and relationship with the deceased. 

Things to consider:

  • Are they able to travel to the funeral home or is it best to meet at their home?
  • What time of day are they at their best? When do they have routine activities that would be best not to disturb?
  • If they are able to travel, are the facilities at the funeral home dementia friendly?  Is there clear signage? Is parking available? Is there a quiet space for them to sit when they arrive? 

Clear communication

You will need to tailor the way you communicate with the person with dementia to ensure they feel relaxed and understand what you are saying.  Be clear and avoid confusion. For example, you may need to:

  • Speak slowly, using simple words and short sentences 
  • Ask one question at a time and repeat questions if needed
  • Keep questions specific, for someone with dementia, answering open ended questions can be difficult
  • Make eye contact and use body language to put emphasis on what you are saying
  • Avoid euphemisms – phrases like ‘passed away’ can be confusing 
  • Allow extra time to explain things 

Find alternative ways to connect 

Sharing past experiences of the person who has died is a good way to prompt discussions about what they might want included in the funeral service. Photographs, music and personal objects are good ways to help trigger memories associated with the deceased.   

Preparing for the funeral

If possible, the Alzheimer’s Society suggest attending the funeral is generally the best option as this will help the person with dementia understand that someone has died.  

Explain clearly exactly what will happen on the day as good preparation will help both the person with dementia as well as other members of the family who may be worried about how the person will react.

Things to consider:

  • It may be good to ask a carer or friend to take care of the person with dementia during the service so the family can focus on their own grief 
  • Showing visuals of where the service will take place can help them familiarise themselves with the venue
  • Think about where they should sit – close to an exit so they can leave if they need to or at the front with other family where they may feel more comfortable

A person with dementia might react or do something unexpected – reassure the family that this is OK

Traditional rituals such as people wearing black or familiar hymns will help the person with dementia understand that it’s a funeral

The funeral service

On the day of the funeral service itself:

  • Greet the person before the service and remind them who you are and what is going to happen
  • Allow extra time for them to settle or orientate themselves in the new surroundings
  • Be flexible and understanding if they interrupt the service
  • Give them something to hold, for instance an order of service with photo or an object that gives them comfort 

There is not a single approach that works for all.  The key is to learn what works for the person with dementia and their family, and adapt the funeral arrangements so that everyone feels included.  If everyone works together as a team, it can be a positive experience for all involved. 

Increasing the knowledge and awareness of dementia has made the team more confident when dealing with clients to ensure they provide the best possible service. The Dementia Friends training is the first step in becoming a more dementia friendly business. 

Going forward, we also plan to establish our own Dementia Champions to ensure that we continue to put in place best practice across all our branches. 

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