The Current

With a family-centric approach, a Danish home for seniors with dementia aims to change the culture of care

When seniors come to live at the Dagmarsminde nursing home in Denmark, they get a different kind of welcome than what you might expect from most long-term care facilities. The home for seniors with dementia takes an alternative approach to care — one that’s centred on compassion, and a sense of community.

We have a duty to take care of our elderly, says Dagmarsminde nursing home founder

May Bjerre Eiby, right, is the founder of the Dagmarsminde care home for seniors with dementia, in Denmark. Eiby says the home serves a small number of seniors, and focuses on making them feel like part of a family. (It Is Not Over Yet/Hot Docs)

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When seniors come to live at the Dagmarsminde nursing home in Denmark, they get a different kind of welcome than what you might expect from most long-term care facilities.

With homely furniture decorating the place and music playing in the background, founder May Bjerre Eiby said she aims to create a cozy atmosphere. New residents are greeted by other seniors and staff in the living room, and the smell of cake often fills the air.

"I was quite sad and tired about this institutional environment that we all know from nursing homes," said Eiby. "So I tried to make the opposite and to turn it into a home."

Established in 2016, Dagmarsminde is a small home for seniors with dementia, accommodating about 12 residents at a time. It takes an alternative approach to care — one that's centred on compassion, and a sense of community.

The home is featured in the new documentary It Is Not Over Yet, which is screening at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto.

Dad 'lost his spark' in nursing home 

Eiby is familiar with how society treats seniors with dementia. 

Her father lived with the disease for many years before moving into a nursing home, where he was left to sit alone in his room most of the time, she said.

He would wait for people in the nursing home to come talk to him, but they never did, Eiby said. Sometimes staff would bring him food on a tray, she added, but they didn't give him the help he needed to eat it.

"No one really knew his name, or who he was, and what his humour was like, and what his interests [were]," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. "So day by day, he lost his spark."

Eiby says many seniors homes alienate the elderly, but that's the worst thing we can do for them. (GagliardiPhotogra/Shutterstock)

Eiby said she believes her father died of neglect. That's what inspired the trained nurse to create the home she now runs.

She said many seniors' homes are failing elderly people by treating them as though they are sick, and alienating them from the rest of society. But she argues that's the worst thing we can do for them.

"We have to understand that ... elderly people, especially with dementia, they are really dependent on us," Eiby said. 

"That's how we have to deal with it, and [we] also have to look up to the duty we have to take care of these human beings."

Making seniors feel loved

At Dagmarsminde, residents are treated like family, said Eiby. Before seniors move into the home, staff speak with their family members to get a better sense of their personality.

The home also tries to treat them with a sense of normalcy — a practice Eiby said can help residents regain some of their routine behaviours.

She gave the example of one woman who had been living in a wheelchair, and was unable to speak before moving to Dagmarsminde. When she was greeted warmly by staff and residents upon arriving at the care home, she began to speak, Eiby said.

"They have to feel … that there's someone that loves them still and that they are [worth everything] to us," she explained.

Eiby says changing the nature of long-term care requires a shift in attitudes toward the elderly. (Lighthunter/Shutterstock)

As Canada grapples with its own crisis in long-term care, some people may wonder if more money is needed to offer the type of support Dagmarsminde provides. 

However, Eiby said it's really about changing society's attitude toward the elderly.

"We fear that work with elderly people because we say it's difficult, and it's hard, and we get really emotional about it," she said. "We only talk about the negative part of the work, and also I think we make sort of a narrative that is negative." 

But if more nursing homes took a family-focused approach to care, things might be different, she said.

"It doesn't have to look like my care home," Eiby said. "But it's just being aware that we can actually together create another culture."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Joana Draghici.

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