Many types of dementia can cause problems with speech and language. As the condition progresses a person may find they struggle to find the right words, use word substitutes, or have difficulty following a conversation. Those that speak a second language might find this exacerbated in their second language first. A person may replace words with the equivalent in a language more familiar to them. Some people can lose the second language altogether, reverting entirely to their mother tongue. If those around them cannot speak this language it can lead to the person living with dementia feeling isolated as they have trouble communicating with those around them.
Learning this was a lightbulb moment for the new Dementia Advisor for West Highland, Lesley Hellon, as she started her post on the first day of Lockdown 2020. Lesley had moved to the Isle of Skye from the Wirral in 2000 without any previous connection to the Island. She noticed that while around a third of the island’s population spoke Gaelic, there was no provision for dementia support in the language. This planted the seed for her project ’Gaelic conversations'.
With the support of Community Activities Officer, Diane Smith, Lesley set up virtual groups where those attending could converse in Gaelic. These groups were facilitated by local Gaelic speakers from all walks of life, including musicians and community figures who could spark topics by introducing themselves and telling the group about their lives. When conversation dried up, Lesley and Diane used music and song to prompt reminiscence and get the attendees talking again. The pair even engaged a local primary, inviting children from Portree Gaelic School to introduce themselves to the group and tell them a bit about their families.
These groups instilled confidence in the attendees as well as acting as a therapeutic activity. Diane, who already spoke a little Gaelic before commencing the project, found participants were able to correct her pronunciation which really served to boost their self esteem.
Their hard work was recognised at the Scottish Gaelic Awards 2021 as they took home the Community Award.
Lesley Hellon, Dementia Advisor said, “Winning the Scottish Gaelic Award’s - Community Award is amazing, not only for Alzheimer Scotland West Highland but the whole of the community. We are breaking down loneliness and isolation for people living with dementia who converse in Gaelic, bringing their culture back to them. The reaction to this project has been overwhelming. To say thank you to everyone involved seems minuscule but it is sincerely meant”
Chair of the Gaelic Committee, Councillor Calum Munro said, “I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate Alzheimer Scotland West Highland on their recent success at the Scottish Gaelic Awards. This is a fantastic achievement for the organisation and the key partners involved in the project. The Highland Council Gaelic Team are delighted to support such an important and worthwhile initiative that provides essential support to people living with dementia whose first language is Gaelic. It is fantastic that we also have our Gaelic medium pupils from Bun-sgoil Ghàidhlig Phort Rìgh and Bun-sgoil Ghàidhlig Loch Abar engaging in the project".
This is just the beginning for Gaelic Conversations as Lesley has big plans to expand the project with more groups, workshops and perhaps even a PenPal project on the horizon.
'Mealaibh ur naidheachd’ to Lesley and all the team in the West Highlands!