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Rural dementia: we need to talk

Posted on January 19th 2017

Research carried out by Plymouth University into the experience of dementia in farming and farming families, and its impact on their businesses and home lives, has identified four areas of concern. 

The year-long study was undertaken by Dr Claire Kelly and Dr Richard Yarwood, with support from Ian Sherriff, who is supported by PenCLAHRC and is Academic Partnership Lead for Dementia at the University and Chair of the Prime Minister’s Rural Dementia Friendly Task and Finish Group. It is the first time that research has addressed this issue in farming.

Sixteen farmers from across Devon were interviewed, along with seven professionals from different organisational perspectives working with, and supporting, farmers living with dementia.  

The four areas of concern identified were; the farm environment; a reluctance to ask for help; support services; and changing rural communities.

Concerns about the farm environment related to the hazardous nature of farms themselves, with opportunities for people to be crushed by animals, fall into slurry pits and be trapped in or under machinery. The interviews showed that it can be hard for farmers affected by dementia to maintain standards of animal health and welfare, and that running a farm while caring for a family member living with dementia can lead to enormous strain on others in the family.

The interviews also showed that farmers can be reluctant to ask for help, which can lead to isolation and a desire to hide problems from the outside world. Farmers were often concerned about what might happen to the farm but reluctant to take steps to address the issue.

The unique social and economic context of farming means that often, farmers continue working long after the state retirement age. As a consequence health issues such as dementia, which show increased prevalence amongst older populations, can be particular issues for farm businesses. 

Many farmers were unaware of the support and help available to them. Some organisations strive to provide help but are hindered by this lack of awareness and/or joined-up thinking between relevant agencies.

The cost of accessing services was also an area of concern, in that the cost in time and money of taking people to and from appointments can be particularly prohibitive for farmers, especially in remote rural areas.

Dr. Richard Yarwood said:

“There was a perception that types of support are often urban-focused and inappropriate for people who have lived and worked outdoors all their lives and been very independent. Pride, a tradition of self-reliance and the desire for privacy often prevent people from asking for help.”

Based on their findings, the research team have made several recommendations, including:

  1. Where possible farmers should plan ahead for the eventuality of ill health (including dementia) or retirement. This should include Lasting Powers of Attorney and succession planning.
  2. There is a need for joined up thinking and working between statutory agencies, dementia support organisations and rural communities, with initiatives such as dementia-friendly parishes. 
  3. Helping farmers to share experiences with farmers in other areas of the UK, would allow them to network without having to share information with those close to home or on neighbouring farms. Mutual support and experience-sharing is a particularly valuable way for farmers who are reluctant to engage with formal agencies, to gain access to farming-specific help and information on living well with dementia.

The team also reported that lessons could be learnt from initiatives to combat farming stress and all agencies working with farmers should undergo dementia training. 

Ian Sherriff commented:

“Dementia is a growing health problem, with an anticipated increase in the number of cases of 156 per cent between now and 2051, according to statistics from the Alzheimer’s Society. This equates to two million people and the burden will fall on rural areas where there are significantly higher proportions of elderly people.


“Our research has gone some way to identifying and addressing concerns, and we are looking forward to working with the farming community and the agencies and organisations that support it, to implement our recommendations.”

The research has attracted considerable media attention - Ian Sherriff discussed the project on the BBC’s Countryfile, BBC Breakfast, Spotlight and Radio 4 Farming Today.

The project was funded by the Seale Hayne Educational Trust with support from the Farming Community Network.

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