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January 31, 2020

Supporter blog: Mikheil smiled for the first time in years


Debbie kneeling down holding hand of elderly man sitting on sofa

Supporter blog: Mikheil smiled for the first time in years

By Debbie Livingstone

Debbie Livingston is a dementia expert, running programmes at University College London (UCL), training relatives and staff to provide better care for people living with dementia. She travelled to Georgia with World Jewish Relief staff members Judith and Natalya, to introduce our dementia training across the country. Here she writes about her experiences…

Georgia has a long and rich history. Jews have lived here since the time of the Second Temple and escaped the persecution experienced by those in other regions. But the last century has been tumultuous and often tragic and the number of Jews has dwindled, leaving a population disproportionately old and infirm. Even so the welcome was warm, open and genuine.

Like other countries where World Jewish Relief works, there is no state support in Georgia for people living with dementia, nor is it understood by the public. Families are left to care for their relatives with little knowledge about how to do so.

The World Jewish Relief training course is aimed at those who work with older people on a daily basis, showing them how to spot the early signs of dementia, understand how it progresses and what to expect from a person who is diagnosed with dementia. It encourages them to put the person with dementia at the centre of the care to help them enhance their quality of life. In the capital Tblisi, the training session gave space for about 30 healthcare staff to think about the people they care for. We asked the participants to reflect on how they would want to be viewed and looked after in their later years. Tears flowed as the emotions came to the surface. Dementia does not have boundaries. The fears are international, and teaching people the skills to support families going through the dementia journey is essential.

It was great to see how the course participants had changed their ideas about dementia and vastly improved their knowledge of the condition.

After the session, they talked about the clients they help and began to realise many of them already showed signs of dementia. It was a light bulb moment for them, and a great step forward for the provision of better care.

After visiting the larger cities of Tbilisi and Kutaisi, the last stop on our trip was Gori. Best known as the birthplace of Stalin, it is an incredibly deprived area, with 85% unemployment. Heavily damaged by airstrikes in the war with Russia in 2008, many buildings still lie in ruins. There is no traffic, the streets are devoid of people and the shops are empty.

The very last person we met on this trip really showed me the importance of my visit and the immediate impact of our training. We went to visit Mikheil, who has advanced dementia. He is incredibly frail with virtually no mobility and the ravages of his dementia means he cannot speak and has very little comprehension. His World Jewish Relief care worker has been with him for more than 5 years and comes most days to dress him, feed him and keep him company. All this she does with love and care.

Debbie with Mikheil

However, following our training session just two days earlier, she had begun to understand that what she did and the manner it which she carried it out made a significant difference to his quality of life. The training put into perspective the value of what she was doing and gave her pride in her role in his life.

During our visit we noticed a beautiful old piano that used to belong to his wife. It had lain silent for many years. We asked if it still worked, and if he liked music but no one had ever thought to try. One of our group started playing an old Jewish song and I watched as Mikheil slowly turned his head and smiled for the first time in years.

Dementia care is an ever-growing issue in Georgia and other parts of the Former Soviet Union. We can’t cure it, but we can help make the life of some of the most vulnerable older Jewish people so much better and more dignified.

Thanks to your support, World Jewish Relief has provided dementia training for 152 carers in Ukraine and Georgia. We are working on expanding the programme into Belarus, reaching more vulnerable older people and families dealing with the effects of dementia.