Social entrepreneur giving people living with dementia the respect they deserve

Social entrepreneur giving people living with dementia the respect they deserve

‘My mum taught me that people deserve respect whoever they are, and I’ve carried that with me. After I finished my nurse training I realised life wasn’t always like that – not everyone thought as I did,’ says Kate Smith, co-founder of Memory Matters.

Kate founded Memory Matters with her sister-in-law, Laura Walker. Both qualified nurses, they are passionate about turning the experience of people living with dementia into a positive one.

Their experience in the healthcare sector showed them that this wasn’t always the case. They had both seen the effects of reduced budgets – the closing of day centres, long waiting lists for diagnosis, and increased staff workloads preventing a personal approach to care.

Kate explained: ‘I’ve seen people sitting distressed, crying and shouting out. Care staff just walking past and telling them to be quiet, not having time for them. For me that was horrifying. People’s dignity was being stripped away.’

The pair set up Memory Matters to try and change things – to provide high quality services for people living with dementia out in the community. They run day clubs, care home visits, training and one-to-one sessions.

‘We decided there was something we could do,’ said Kate, ‘These are people with thoughts, feelings and opinions. They should be listened to and cared for as you’d expect anyone else to be. That’s what we do.’

Service users play hoopla

Starting well… at the wrong time

Kate and Laura started Memory Matters in 2010. For Kate, who’d recently become a mother, it felt like a good thing to do while the children were growing up. The venture’s success exceeded Kate’s expectations, growing into a ‘very, very viable business.’

Setting up in 2010 turned out to both be a blessing and a curse. As Kate puts it ‘we started in the middle of a recession’. This created a bunch of challenges to starting the business and raising finance, but also became a big factor in their success.

‘In most ways it wasn’t the best time to do it, sure,’ said Kate, ‘But also everybody else was reacting to the recession. Statutory services were pulling back a lot. We were able to fill that gap.’

Turning challenges into opportunities

Filling the gap presented its own issues – working alongside those statutory services can sometimes end up being a bit of a challenge for Kate and Laura.

‘They sometimes see us as a threat,’ she explained, ‘We’re a social enterprise running community health services in Plymouth and Cornwall and we can work a little differently to how they do. We have the power to make changes and build services without all the red tape.’

Managing the relationships with those services has been crucial to their success. Kate is keen to show them that they’re not competition.

‘I think as a social enterprise within that area you realise you’re there to support other services,’ Kate said, ‘We have to show we’re not just a business trying to make money out of it. We don’t, the money goes back into the services we provide.’

Another big challenge for Kate and Laura is managing growth. While they believe that their social venture has the potential to scale locally and nationally, they don’t want to rush things. They want to grow in a controlled way.

‘We don’t want to lose the quality of what we do,’ Kate explained, ‘We have to hold back a bit, make sure we get the right staff and take our time.’

Their next stage of growth is about cementing their place in Plymouth and providing them with another sustainable stream of money. They’re currently developing a cafe – open to everyone, but designed for people living with dementia.

‘It’s a normal cafe, but with history in mind,’ said Kate, ‘It’s got different zones – fifties, sixties, seventies. It’s being developed alongside a museum, so we can make sure that the artefacts people interact with are genuine.’

Kate points to UnLtd’s support as something that has been critical in helping them grow. She is a Solutions for an Ageing Society Award winner. The money she received through the Award helped them to fund their next stage of growth, but more importantly to her it helped her to go from working within the business – looking after staff, delivering services – to being able to spend the time managing the business and planning growth.

‘It’s strange, because people often say it’s about the money when you receive an Award like this.’ says Kate, ‘But it’s not. What is does is give you a whole raft of confidence – you get some external affirmation. Someone else believes you’re on the right track and has the confidence in you to put your ideas into action.’

Kate with beneficiaries.

Making a real difference to people’s lives

It’s the difference that Memory Matters is able to have in people’s lives that drives Kate’s passion. The work that goes into making the business sustainable is about ensuring that the impact they have is lasting.

One example of someone they’ve helped is a couple, the wife living with dementia.

‘She came to our clubs for a good couple of years, built relationships,’ said Kate, ‘Her and her husband lived alone down here, had no family.

We were able to guide them through their dementia journey. As she started to deteriorate, we noticed it before her husband. We were able to alert him to issues, and got them involved with local services who could help.

We assisted the transition for them to move into supported accommodation. We were almost a spokesperson for the family – to say look, they want to stay together and not split up after they’ve been together forever.

They’re now in joint accommodation, with 24 hours support and are very, very happy. We’ve helped them avert any crisis and avoid any trauma.’

Stories like this are common to Kate and Memory Matters. The venture is helping to change the lives of people living with dementia in Plymouth and Cornwall, and the families and friends that support them. It’s helping people living with dementia get the respect they deserve.

‘Every day we get a telephone call saying, I don’t know what we would have done without you,’ Kate says.

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