Planning and delivering the first Wales International Dementia Care conference – during a pandemic… by Michaela Morris, Mental Health Programme, Service Improvement Manager

2-3 February 2021 saw the first Wales International Dementia Care conference, Improvement Cymru’s first virtual large scale event, our first partnership with the Royal College of Psychiatrists. This could be a blog about many firsts! Yes it may be the first time we have held an international conference of this size but if anything our experience is one of continuity. The continuous engagement of the people driving the dementia agenda forward, the continuous passion for better than before, the continuous help and support for each other and for us as a dementia care team, the continuous humour, strength, resilience, loss, commitment, pain, grief and kindness. We see and feel this every day in our work to advance dementia care across Wales and we have seen it in abundance throughout the pandemic.

Wales is a small network of people and professionals and we (Improvement Cymru and RcPsych Old Age Faculty Wales) had the idea of working together on a conference – to bring people together and learn from each other. We waited, listened to our partners across health, social care, third sector and most of all to the people living with dementia and their carers and  we waited some more. When was the right time for speakers and practitioners to engage with us? Many were in the thick of clinical practice-when is it sensitively the right time for people with dementia and carers to engage in a wider dementia agenda again? We did not want a conference focussed solely on  COVID-19, we wanted a balanced blended agenda and had a belief that we needed to advance dementia care, pick up the momentum and look ahead to “better than not same as” – a lovely quote from our friend Nigel Hullah. From what we heard from our engagement with people and practice, February 2021 was the right time to bring people together. People told us they were ready.

It was a slow start attracting speakers and poster presentations – we forgot about Christmas and we were hit with the COVID-19 pressures throughout December and January. Despite this, we kept hearing that people wanted to engage and through a relentless use of social media, connections and relationships already forged, we found an incredible line up of speakers and that balanced agenda we originally wanted. Let’s do it all, achieve what we can, this reminds me of our work on the Wales Dementia Friendly Hospital Charter – a see it, sort it, can do attitude and culture is what we are striving for at all levels across all settings. This is how we advance care.

The speaker sessions were varied, reflecting the life and experiences of people with dementia and their carers. We heard the dementia voices, strong and clear and the presenters telling us about their specialist area, stories and subjects that enhance our learning, development and delivery of care.

The use of the chat function to engage with the speakers, ask questions and provide opinions was insightful in its varied content. The speakers will have a copy of this to review so that the discussions can live on beyond the conference. Our plenary speakers provided expert detail around delirium, alcohol and dementia and improvements gained from listening and creating stories.

The breakout rooms started with a guest appearance from the dreaded technical gremlin but thankfully understanding, patience and kindness from the delegates was found in abundance and we were soon up and running. Each room provided a focus on specific dementia related topics; technology, care planning, music, standards, outcomes, carers projects, impacts of COVID-19, memory assessment, home treatment, reading, textiles, assessment and many more. All areas of improvement.

The conference provided engagement opportunities that might never have happened – on paper the subjects were completely different, but speakers engaged with each other and found how one topic could influence the outcomes of the other. What a rare event for the audience to be part of this.

Speakers joined us from Wales, England, Scotland, Australia, America, India and Switzerland, with multiple countries involved in many of the research topics. We heard presentations from academics, researchers, practitioners, improvers, educators, the creative arts, performing arts, people with experience, carers and the third sector and our delegates crossed continents from all walks of life; people with lived experience, clinicians, policy makers to fashion designers.

The panel sessions created a buzz before the conference started due to the spotlight they were providing to the dementia agenda. First the dementia voices and their experiences during COVID-19, second was the challenges, strengths and reality of the experiences from the BAME and dementia experts and our third, the debate panel, who tackled a thought provoking discussion considering if dementia research has been a waste of money. All experts sharing their views and specialist knowledge – how lucky were we to have that commitment and enthusiasm from each panellist and chair.

The conference itself realised our vision of people feeling connected. We wanted to try and replicate what it feels like when we meet each other, chatting in the foyer of a venue, having a coffee and danish pastry before we all take our seats. Wales, the land of song, with such beautiful scenery, an obvious choice to show pictures of wonderful places across Wales that at this time, we all miss visiting and to play a few welsh songs, all created an uplifting mood  (who doesn’t love a bit of Tom Jones or feel emotional when hearing Calon Lan).

Using the time at the beginning and end of the conference to engage with each other felt important – we had over 400 people join us so it was great to be able to connect people. A wonderful moment was seeing people waving to each other, seeing the joy on the faces because somebody was on the screen they hadn’t seen in over 10 months, watching people nod heads and sing along to the music. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and humbling.

Working on the conference with our partners the Royal College of Psychiatrists Wales Old Age Faculty, tells us we need to do more together, our superb events team of two who gave so much advice and support – we gave them a permanent headache! The wonderful support from our colleagues in Improvement Cymru, Social Care Wales, Alzheimers Cymru, Diverse Cymru, our leadership team John Boulton and Dominque Bird and our Mental Health Lead Andrea Gray, the wonderful Katherine Jenkins supporting us with a lovely opening video wishing us well and our new Welsh Government Minister for Mental Health Eluned Morgan opening the conference highlighting the commitment to advance dementia care in Wales – we thank you all. 

It was such a lovely conference and I thank each and every person that joined us, helped us, presented their work to increase our knowledge and whet our appetites for more. There will be more to come from Wales, the land of song, big hearts and passion, for advancing dementia care to be better than before…watch this space.

To access supporting resources from the conference as well as recordings, click here.

To find out more about our work visit our website.