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How to make shopping easier for people with dementia

How to make shopping easier for people with dementia

Most of us take it for granted, but if you have dementia, going shopping can pose a Herculean task. Volunteer schemes, such as the Alzheimer's Society's Side by Side service, can make things easier, but retailers also need to take the lead.

Every Monday morning, Eilish Nolan and Rosemary Stearn meet in Lambeth, South London. They have done so for nearly two years now.

More often than not, they visit a local café for a cup of tea and a slice of cake. They also go shopping together, particularly when Rosemary has a new item of clothing she needs buying.

While a trip to the shops is just a regular activity for most us, for Rosemary it increasingly represents twin feats of defiance and autonomy.

The former schoolteacher was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in January 2016. As her condition has progressed over the last two years, so it has precluded her capacity to venture outside on her own - even to pick up a pint of milk or loaf of bread from the store around the corner.

Yet, Rosemary, who is of a sociable and sunny disposition, likes shopping. According to a Alzheimer’s Society survey, 80% of people with dementia listed shopping as one of their top hobbies.

'Side by Side'

In 2016, the Alzheimer's Society launched a new service, Side by Side, in which volunteers team up with people with the disease to help them continue - or, in some cases, rediscover - doing their favourite activities. Having received £1.35 million from The Players of the People's Postcode Lottery, Side by Side has 836 volunteers and 865 active service users on its books.

For Eilish, who saw both her mother and aunt succumb to the illness - and who has been a member of the Alzheimer's Society for 20 years - signing up as a volunteer to the scheme was an easy decision to make.

"It immediately appealed to me," she says. "Having witnessed the condition first-hand, I know how difficult it is for family members."

The affection Eilish has for Rosemary is self-evident. "I was very lucky to have been matched up with her," she says. "She's so easy to get on with, very talented [Rosemary used to teach arts and crafts] and light-hearted."

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The pair's weekly shopping jaunts include both local stores - where Rosemary is well known to staff members - and 'some of the bigger shops'. Eilish's approach is something akin to a soft hand on the tiller, always by Rosemary's side, but only stepping in when she is needed - like when it comes to payment.

"I don't want to take that independence away from her, so I'll let her do it to begin with," says Eilish. "It's when she struggles to find the right money that I will step in."

Undoubtedly, much ground has been covered in raising dementia awareness in the UK. In 2017, the Alzheimer’s Society's Dementia Friends initiative surpassed two million signees.

The challenges

Yet, according to the aforementioned Alzheimer's Society survey, 63% of respondents believed shops still weren't doing enough to help people with condition. As a result, one in four people with dementia have given up shopping post-diagnosis.

"Sadly, many people with dementia report feeling socially isolated after their diagnosis," says Emma Bould, the society's programme partnerships project manager.

"Fearing that they may not get the right support while out and about, people with the condition can end up spending days on end at home, giving up hobbies and activities, like shopping."

As in Rosemary’s case, people with dementia often have problems counting money. Other challenges include locating the correct item, navigating their away around or the store, or finding the toilets.

Or, sometimes, it's simply being misunderstood by staff and other shoppers.

"The thing about Rosemary is that she will talk to anybody, and she's actually very vulnerable," says Eilish. "So sometimes she’ll be talking to the cashier and she won't notice that there's a big queue behind her. But, I'd say, on the whole, most staff members haven't been abrupt or dismissive."

Tips for carers

Just as in other areas of daily life, routine can be of massive help to people with dementia and their caregivers when venturing on to the high street. A weekly morning outing on a set day is preferable to an arbitrary afternoon here and there.

Sticking to smaller, familiar shops can help avoid confusion, too - while also providing a great opportunity to become acquainted with staff members. If visiting an unfamiliar environment - a different town, or new shopping centre - carers might think of planning a route beforehand.


The Alzheimer's Society has issued a dementia-friendly retail guide, offering shops guidance on how to improve staff understanding, as well as making store environments and facilities more accessible to people with dementia, their families and carers.

Retailers, the guide says, can make commitments in the following areas:

Improve staff awareness

This could entail nominating a colleague to be a dementia 'champion', while providing all front-line staff with a basic understanding of the condition. Employees are also encouraged to complete an online Dementia Friends session.

Review the store's physical environment

Even the smallest changes to the store layout or signage - especially to and from toilets, customer service desks and payment points - can confuse and distress someone with dementia. So keeping changes to a minimum can go a long way to reducing stress and confusion.

Changes in perception mean mirrors can confuse people with dementia, so store managers should give due consideration to their size and positioning. Entrances should be well-lit but should avoid the use of extreme artificial light, while quiet zones with ample seating are welcome.

Support local community initiatives

Staff should be encouraged to get involved in local fundraising schemes and volunteering initiatives.

Thankfully, there are indications that some of the UK's biggest retailers are looking to do more to cater for customers with dementia. In March, Sainsbury’s will become the first supermarket to introduce 'dementia-friendly' toilets, with high-visibility 'way out' signs.

Similarly, last year Tesco piloted a 'relaxed checkout scheme' in one of its stores in Scotland, geared towards vulnerable customers - dementia sufferers falling into that bracket. However, a spokesperson for the group declined to comment on whether there are plans in the offing to roll out the scheme on a national level.

Fellow supermarket chain Iceland has also been praised by the Alzheimer's Society for it efforts, having totted up 24,000 Dementia Friends across its UK stores.

Other retailers would do well to follow such leads. In doing so, they can help afford people with dementia the chance to prolong and cherish the human luxury they crave above all else: their independence.

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