A St Helens shop manager is championing the needs of those with dementia after seeing the effect of the illness on her own family.
Gill Tonks from Greenhalgh’s Craft Bakery is undergoing specialist coaching to help vulnerable customers with similar problems, and plans to train her colleagues in the Church Square Shopping Centre store.
She knows only too well the difficulties faced by those living with dementia, as she helped care for her mum Dorothy, who was diagnosed with the condition four years ago.
The training has been organised by Greenhalgh’s, the Lostock-based speciality retail and wholesale bakers, which supplies pies, bread, savouries, sandwiches and a range of bespoke cakes.
The company has pledged to become dementia friendly, with training for all staff in its 61 shops across north west England.
There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK with numbers set to rise to more than one million by 2021.
Gill said: “Dementia is a condition that I’m pretty familiar with, because of my mum. I know how important it is to be aware of the problems experienced by those living with the condition. I was keen to do the training so I could pass that on to the team here.
“It’s all about knowing how to reassure someone, to make them feel safe and let them know that you are approachable and happy to help.
“I usually can spot the signs – often it is someone who looks a bit lost and scared. We have people who come in regularly, because they know they can trust us. It important that staff can look after customers who need a little extra support when they are looking confused or unable to count out their money.
“With our regular customers we know what they like and what they tend to come in for – even if they’ve forgotten themselves – so that puts them at ease.”
Gill, who lives in Ashton-in-Makerfield, is just round the corner from her parents and her three sisters, with the close-knit family working together to support Dorothy, aged 80.
“She still lives with my dad in the house we grew up in,” said Gill. “Dad looks after her every day and he is just amazing – he deserves all the credit for her care. She can’t dress herself or feed herself anymore: she does eat sometimes but it’s like she’s forgotten how and when, so you can’t always guarantee she will have had a meal.
“It’s so hard, especially for him. They’ve been married 62 years and it seems so unfair as she has never smoked or even touched a drop of alcohol her whole life.
“She did everything for us when we were kids and was a great seamstress, making all our clothes, and she is such a strong, proud woman but now we have to do everything for her.
“The hardest thing is when you’re out and people stare at her or say things but I have got used to that now and just ignore it.”
Dorothy is mum of four girls, grandmother to 11 children and now a great-grandmother of 13, and now their support is vital to her.
Gill added: “My daughter Penny has just had a baby girl making me a grandmother for the first time. She’s called her Dotty as a tribute to Mum and it’s perfect, as she’s just like her.
“Mum likes holding Dotty and seems so content when the family are nearby. You just have to hold her hand and let her know that you’re there and that she is loved.”
Knowing how to deal with the challenges caused by dementia and Alzheimer’s has allowed Gill to lead the way for others in the Church Square branch of Greenhalgh’s, a company for which she has worked for 25 years.
“It’s important to know the signs and what you can do,” Gill explained. “But everyone is different. During the training they described it as being like a string of fairy lights. Some get dimmer, some go off completely, some flicker on and off, some stay bright – but every string is different.”
Commending Gill for her efforts, Church Square Shopping Centre Manager Steven Brogan said: “Having such direct personal experience, and now official training as well, makes Gill a great asset to us here in St Helens.
“Dementia is a hidden condition, and it’s not always obvious if you don’t know the person, especially in the early stages. The numbers of those diagnosed are steadily growing and it’s something that every business needs to consider in their dealings with customers.
“It can be daunting for people who suffer with these problems to visit a busy, hectic shopping centre, so it is great that we have supportive and dedicated members of our team like Gill, to make that experience easier for those vulnerable members of our local community.”
Sandra Ogden, marketing director at Greenhalgh’s, said: “It is important that all customer-facing staff who provide a service should have an awareness and understanding of dementia, and become dementia friendly.
“We employ approximately 1,000 staff across the company, and we are aware that some of them do care for a family member who has been diagnosed with dementia. Greenhalgh’s is very happy to contribute to the important work being done to create dementia friendly communities.”
Church Square Shopping Centre is open daily and home to a range of big name stores – such as River Island, Boots and Superdrug – along with independent retailers plus the busy St Mary’s Market.
Details on what’s happening at the centre at www.churchsquaresthelens.co.uk