Will You Be Using a 'Dementia Friendly' Checkout For Your Christmas Shopping?

16/12/2015 10:31 GMT | Updated 15/12/2016 10:12 GMT

With December signalling a boom period in retailing, you may or may not be aware that 2015 has seen the introduction of the UK's first 'Dementia Friendly' checkout in Chester.

As shoppers partake in a rush to buy all those Christmas essentials (and indeed all the things you think you need but probably don't), this may not have much significance for the majority of people who are queuing up to pay for their goods, but it's prompted a lot of soul-searching in my mind.

On the one hand I'm hugely supportive of anything that makes shopping - a regular task for most people - a little easier for individuals who are living with dementia. Encouraging and supporting people with dementia to remain as independent as possible for as long as possible is a vital part of helping each individual to live well with dementia.

The flip-side to that argument, however, comes from concerns about further stigmatizing people with dementia, creating a 'them and us' culture whereby people with dementia actively queue at a different checkout, in full view of everyone else doing their shopping, and possibly experience comments, stares and a feeling of general discomfort.

Despite all the fantastic awareness-raising work that's been done, and continues apace, to challenge the public's perceptions of dementia there remains a residual stigma. People with dementia are still the butt of 'jokes' about memory problems, if indeed anyone could ever find such 'humour' funny, and for every compassionate person who would happily stop and help a person with dementia who is lost or confused, there are probably plenty more who'd just walk on by, and a few might even laugh at the person.

Our local communities can be cruel places for people who don't fit what most people see as 'the norm', and for this reason I worry about further compartmentalizing people with dementia. That said, I like the changes offered at these checkouts, with all the usual clutter of magazines and associated paraphernalia removed, and a pictorial of all the different UK sterling coins, plus of course it's staffed by people who've got some awareness of dementia.

That last point is key, because it's widely acknowledged that if you give people with dementia more time and understanding, they will be able to remain involved in community life, and go about their usual day-to-day business, far more easily and for much longer than might otherwise be the case. Arguably, however, there are lots of other members of society who don't have dementia who would also benefit from retailers adopting this approach.

Which, for me, really gets to the heart of the issue. Shouldn't all checkouts be 'dementia friendly', because the elements that go into making a dementia friendly checkout are potentially something that many people could benefit from? The mum with the fractious toddler might welcome more time and understanding. The foreign national who is unfamiliar with UK currency might really like the idea of a pictorial of coins. And as for all the clutter at checkouts, I for one would be delighted not to be bombarded with what often amounts to a lot of rubbish that I don't particularly welcome being shoved in my face.

Ultimately of course, it's for people with dementia to voice their own opinions on this development. The checkout initiative in Chester has been backed by two fantastic advocates for people with dementia who are themselves living with dementia - Gina Shaw, from the Dementia Friends TV adverts, and Tommy Dunne, a regular speaker at conferences.

Gina and Tommy are the experts in this matter, not me, and they have clearly welcomed the checkout initiative. However, given the diverse population of individuals who are diagnosed with dementia, it's possible other people living with dementia may not be quite so enthusiastic. Plus of course, until more of these checkouts open, it's only people living near Chester who are likely to be using them, which isn't exactly a widely-representative sample of opinions.

In my heart of hearts, and perhaps naively, I would just like to see our communities embrace the needs of people with dementia in a way that doesn't single them out, but instead makes it easier for them to use all of the same services that they've always used and that anyone else would use, with allowances made as necessary rather than shouted about loudly. That, to me, would be a true mark of 'friendliness'.