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Winning hearts and minds

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A desire to care for older people and a history in mental health meant for Zena Aldridge, dementia care was a perfect fit

Zena Aldridge

A desire to care for older people and a history in mental health meant for Zena Aldridge, dementia care was a perfect fit

An estimated 16,400 people in Norfolk have dementia and the figure is projected to rise to 25,512 in the next 20 years. Until recently, however, the county did not have any Admiral nurses - dementia specialists who offer both practical and emotional support to the whole family.

When nurse Zena Aldridge read about the Admiral nurse role in John Suchet’s journey with wife Bonny, she knew that’s what she wanted to be.

“The only problem was, there weren’t any in Norfolk,” she says. So when Dementia UK, Age UK and Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust got funding from the People’s Health Trust to start a local Admiral nurse pilot, she leapt at the opportunity.

“I just had to apply for the job. It felt like all the skills and knowledge I’d acquired in all my less-traditional posts came together to equip me with what I needed.” Ms Aldridge wasn’t the only one of that opinion - in April 2013 she was appointed Norfolk’s first Admiral nurse.

Despite having held a range of “obscure” jobs in mental health, Ms Aldridge always wanted to work with older people. “People say midwives are really privileged to bring people into the world but I see looking after people at the latter part and end of their lives as a real privilege,” she explains

When she qualified she was told working in dementia care was “career suicide”.

“The assumption was that you went there at the end of your career,” she recalls. Undeterred, she worked in an older person’s acute admission ward and a continuing care ward before joining the local social services emergency duty team as an out-of-hours dementia worker and starting her Master’s degree at the University of East Anglia.

“That degree has changed my career,” says Ms Aldridge. “I’ve always been passionate about nursing. I was people first, politics second. But it made me aware of the major, external influencers and how, from a more strategic position, I could make more changes - and bigger changes. I’m blessed to be in a role now where I can balance the two.”

Since her appointment, two more Admiral nurses have been recruited; Ms Aldridge is now the Admiral nurse lead.

“There was only ever supposed to be me, but none of it could ever have happened without the introduction of the other two nurses.”

There are 2.5 nurses covering seven GP surgeries. In 18 months, they have supported 300 families.

Ms Aldridge collaborates with health and social care professionals, ensuring people with dementia and their carers can access the right support at the right time.

“It’s hugely varied. I deliver lectures or talk on a clinical level, then I’m with the families and supporting the other nurses,” she says.

On top of that, as it’s a pilot, she is responsible for changing and moulding the model. “It’s like building a business up. You don’t open a stall and become Marks & Spencer overnight,” she says. “But the service has gone from strength to strength.”

She’s not exaggerating. The pilot proved that specialist dementia nurses prevent crises, reduce contact time with GPs, nurses and social workers, and avoid unnecessary hospital admissions and care home costs. As well as 94% of health and social care professionals saying the service has boosted their confidence in dealing with patients and their carers, a cost/benefit analysis estimated that it has resulted in savings of £443,593 over 10 months. For these reasons, the Norfolk Admiral nurse model is proving particularly favourable with clinical commissioning groups (CCGs).

“It’s wonderful because we’ve helped local people, but the model is making a more national impact,” says Ms Aldridge. She admits that if the model ever moved out of Norfolk, she’d be “devastated”.

She adds that, if she could change anything she would have more hours in the week and more colleagues. “It’s difficult when people outside the catchment area contact us for help. I just want to go and see them myself,” she says.

Due to the pilot’s success, the CCGs plan to continue developing, expanding and integrating the Admiral nursing model. So, if things continue as they are, Ms Aldridge might get her wish.

Emily Hardy

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Well done Zena. Not bad for a girl from Broadland High.

    James Page

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