Caring for First Nations people on Country, wherever they are

Ari NAIDOC Week

Living with dementia is different for everyone. That’s why no two days are the same for Dementia Support Australia (DSA) Consultant Carol*, who cares for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in remote communities. 

A huge map on the wall of the HammondCare office shows the diversity of the people Carol cares for. “The complexity is staggering. There are so many different dialects and language groups, all with unique traditions and knowledge,” explains Carol.

“I use the map as a reference point, because as well as going out to remote communities, I see a lot of people in care homes who can no longer live on their own traditional lands. By putting their history in context, the map helps to inform the recommendations I make about their care.”

It also helps Carol bring home a little closer to First Nations clients living in care.

"I take in things like local bush medicines to engage a person’s senses. Familiar smells can help maintain a sense of connection with their land – and Country.”

As a DSA Consultant, Carol is committed to improving the lives of people with dementia, along with the loved ones who care for them in some of Australia’s most remote communities.

 “It’s a privilege to be based in the heart of the country in Alice Springs, working with the oldest civilisation on the planet. DSA prides itself on having identical response times for everyone in need, wherever they happen to be,” says Carol.

For example, when an aged care centre manager on an island off the coast of Arnhem Land called to advise someone with dementia was feeling confused and distressed, DSA flew into action.

“To provide care as soon as possible, two consultants travelled from Perth to Darwin then onto the island, covering a distance of more than 3,000 kilometres.”

Depending on the circumstances, DSA Consultants can also provide support via phone and video calls. “During the worst of COVID-19, many remote communities were in quarantine. So we had no choice but to connect with people through technology,” says Carol.

But more often than not, a visit can mean a seven-hour round trip along a four-wheel-drive track, or a two-hour flight in a twin-engine plane.

"Our region is so complex and remote, we all need to work together to make sure everyone is getting the best possible care.”

It’s about providing tailored support to the individual

When someone is referred to DSA, a Consultant decides how to best address their needs.

For example, that meant a series of visits to get to know Steve* and his wife of 50 years, Cathy* who was showing signs of dementia. As they lived 40 kilometres from a health service, things were becoming increasingly difficult.

“Cathy tends to wander away, so there’s a risk she’s going to get lost which is a big worry,” says Steve. “She can also get frustrated and distressed.” 

As Cathy was a dress designer, DSA Consultant Kirra* suggested they tap into her creativity through music.

“The music turned out to be a great idea. My grandchildren showed me how to use Spotify and now we play music every day. Cathy loves it.”

 Getting to know each person and tailoring support to them is key. Carol credits the DSA team for their detective skills.

“We find out as much as we can about a person’s life. Of course, when we’re working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, we do that in a very respectful way.”

Since almost all of Carol’s clients are First Nations people, she refers to her work in terms of a word from the Pintubi, Warlpiri and Luritja languages of the Central Desert – ‘Malpa’.

Malpa is about recognising the values, strengths and knowledge of local people and staying by their side.”

 “I can never walk in their shoes. But I can be alongside them, every step of the way.”

*Names have been changed for privacy.