On the Same Page - Contented Dementia Book Review

By Kristen Phillips. Published on 9/12/2021

This is the second in a series of book reviews from Kristen Phillips. Reading about other people’s experiences helped Kristen emotionally and practically around her father’s illness. Her hope is that these reviews will raise awareness of the ever-increasing number of books (fiction and non-fiction) available to support and educate those of us affected by dementia.

Contented Dementia
(Vermilion, Random House, 2009)
Oliver James
286 pages

‘Today, I know that the disability created by dementia does not have to be hellish, that it truly is possible to create well-being for the rest of the person’s life.’
(Introduction p1)

In the 1980s, Penny Garner’s mother, Dorothy, was diagnosed with dementia.  From her observations of Dorothy, and from her dementia work at Burford community hospital, Oxfordshire, Penny developed the SPECAL method.  Penny is now the Clinical Director and founder of the Contented Dementia Trust, which offers courses and services to all people affected by dementia.
Penny’s son-in-law, Oliver James, educational psychologist, writer and journalist, wrote Contented Dementia with the aim of making the SPECAL method more widely known and used.

Who would find this book helpful?

Contented Dementia is primarily aimed at carers and supporters of people with dementia. It is divided into three parts which makes it very easy to dip in and out of.
Part 1 Making Sense of Dementia (3 chapters): includes Dorothy’s story; Penny’s early experiences with other people with dementia; and an outline of Penny’s model for understanding memory, the ‘Photograph Album’, which is the foundation of the SPECAL method.
Part 2 How to provide 24-hour Wraparound Care (8 chapters): includes a chapter on each of the ‘Three Golden Rules’ (see below); chapters on observing the person with dementia in order to use these observations to provide better support; and a chapter on getting a team together to provide ‘wraparound care’.
Part 3 Planning for the Future (2 chapters): ‘Find your tipping point and choose a residential care home’; and ‘Prepare a Transitional Care Plan for Making the Move’.
The book ends with a case study demonstrating the SPECAL method, and FAQs.

My reflections
It was 2015, Dad was in the mid-stages of dementia and I was living in London, so our main way of communicating was by phone.  In our conversations Dad would repeatedly ask ‘how was your day?’.  I was starting to want to put off calling, feeling guilty and frustrated.  I had been reading Contented Dementia, and decided to try the ‘Three Golden Rules’:  
1.    Don’t ask questions
2.    Learn from them [the people with dementia] as the experts in their disability
3.    Always agree with everything they say, never interrupting them.    
The first time I tried this way of talking with Dad, I can still remember the feelings of relief and hope – it was going to take some practice but I had some tools to use, we were connecting again, I felt like I had my dad back.  
The SPECAL method uses green and red zones to describe the state of the person with dementia:  

green - the person is relaxed, heard, included and comfortable.                                                          

red - the person feels anxious and frustrated, often because of being corrected, and/or ignored.  There can also be physical reasons for ‘red’.                                                          

If red feelings persist for too long, the person can shut down.  I found this a useful way of understanding how Dad was and I kept finding ways of helping him stay in the green zone e.g., drinking water with him, making regular eye contact, giving him frequent hugs.
Contented Dementia is a hopeful book: it provides a road-map for living with the progression of dementia, which when followed can mean greater contentment for everyone affected. 

Matthew Croucher 
Kristen Phillips grew up in Te Awa Kairangi / Lower Hutt. She went travelling ‘for a year’ and returned to Aotearoa after thirty years based in London.  Her father, Don, was diagnosed with dementia in 2011 and died in 2019.  She currently lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara with her partner, the writer Mia Farlane.  As well as working part-time for Dementia Wellington, Kristen likes reading, walking and dancing Argentine Tango. 

If you have suggestions for books you would like to be reviewed, please leave a comment below with the title.


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