Mental health nurses who choose to work with patients with dementia will find their career options expanding – the number of sufferers is predicted to top one million by 2025.
Dementia is a progressive illness with symptoms that include memory loss and a decline in reasoning and communication skills. It can include unusual and puzzling behaviour, which families can find hard to cope with. Of the 700,000 sufferers today, a third live in care homes.
A mental health nurse working in a care home for older people who are mentally infirm will give medication, counselling and physical care while building relationships with residents and their families.
‘This job needs people who really care,’ says Andrew Makin, nursing director of the Registered Nursing Homes Association. ‘You need passion to do the job, and with that passion you will thrive.’
Being a mental health nurse provides opportunities to try out the latest thinking in nursing. ‘You can bring a good understanding of delivering not only physical care but also psychologically minded care,’ says Ian Hulatt, mental health adviser at the RCN.
‘You can use interventions that are contemporary and specifically suited to people with dementia, for example programmes to deal with behavioural difficulties. Mental health nurses have a familiarity with any psychiatric medicines that might be needed. They also have the ability to see the person within the illness,’ he adds.
Other vital qualities, according to Mr Hulatt, include ‘good interpersonal skills’
and patience, ‘because a person with dementia can be somewhat challenging’.
‘Empathy and time to talk, tactile skills, patience and kindness are the real skills which work,’ adds Mr Makin.
Mental health nurses work with relatives as well as a team of professionals to plan care for a resident with dementia. ‘The relationship you build up with your client and their significant others helps to drive the optimisation of care. You’re working together as a gang for years, getting to know what works and what’s right,’ says Mr Makin.
The reward is being part of someone’s life: ‘You can say “I’ve made a difference”,’ he adds.
A general nursing qualification is also relevant as, in the later stages of dementia, physical nursing skills come to the fore. Nurses with dual qualifications are in an ideal position.
A registered nurse can do a one-year conversion course to become a mental health nurse. Courses specialising in this branch of nursing often require some experience of working with clients with mental health problems, be that paid or unpaid. Once registered, nurses are qualified to work with children, adults or older people with mental health problems in the community, hospitals or care homes. Next, they could join a community mental health team, as most people with dementia are cared for by these teams.
Qualifying as a mental health nurse is also a good route into management in care homes.
‘Registered mental health nurses will typically be found working at management level in residential dementia care,’ says an Alzheimer’s Society spokesperson.
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Working with residents with dementia is a challenging and enjoyable career for a mental health nurse, according to Emma Smyth.
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University-based centres like Stirling’s Dementia Services Development Centre or the Bradford Dementia Group offer everything from one-day training or bespoke packages for your team, to postgraduate qualifications.