Creating a chance! Working as a Project Leader with Dementia

By Bianca Nielsen

Creating a change! That is 100% what drives me. People with dementia and their relatives have needs. If those needs are met, I believe – and have seen first-hand – we can create positive change, joy, and ease their lives. 

In 2017, The Government of Denmark announced that all of Denmark’s 98 municipalities should transition to becoming ‘dementia-friendly’. What that meant in practice and how to achieve it was yet to be disclosed, but by the end of the year of 2025 ‘dementia-friendlyness’ should be achieved. 

I was the project leader of that transition in a small, rural municipality in East Jutland.

Firstly, it meant that I was, in charge of defining what ‘dementia-friendly’ meant in practice. The Government had not provided much information, let alone concrete instructions, of what being a dementia-friendly municipality actually means. So, the first step was to produce a project description offering a definition of the concept. Also, an execution plan, a stakeholder analysis, scopes and aims, communication and ethical strategies among other things had to be outlined. Through the whole process, I had to take into account local resources, political aims, plans of the municipality and so on. Finally, I was in charge of creating and facilitating all the initiatives that would lead the municipality to become dementia-friendly.

Bianca’s desk around Christmas time. 

How was your journey from university to employment?

5 months into the unemployment that followed my graduation, I had become fairly desperate for a job. Therefore, I thought to myself – I need to move beyond what might seem comfortable, and hinge onto whatever small opportunity or contact I might reside with. I was uncomfortable, but I convinced myself that the worst thing that could happen, was getting a no from the people I reached out to – which would be a given if I never contacted them in the first place.

3 months earlier, I had corresponded briefly via e-mail with a person from the municipality, where I eventually found employment. It was about some voluntary work with qualitative research, but back then we were not able to make it work due to practicalities. 

So, months later, I contacted her again out of the blue. Though we did not know each other beyond a few e-mails, I wrote her exactly as it was. I was still unemployed, I was getting desperate, it was getting on my nerves, and I asked her if she had anything for a person like me. If not, had she heard of anyone, or maybe she had heard of someone who had heard of something… I was maybe pushing it a bit.

But she actually replied that they needed someone at the moment, to make their municipality dementia-friendly. Unfortunately, I had to go through the steps of an internship (virksomhedpraktik) and then subsidized employment (løntilskud) before being employed on regular terms. Still, during those months, I had full responsibility and the day I transitioned to a regular employment status, it was because I had managed to make myself too useful. In the initial months of subsidiary payment, I had shown them the extent of what I could do with my academic background, so I became a full-time fully payed employee with a lot of responsibility. 

Poster at events for recruitment of volunteers.

How do you make use of anthropology in your daily work? 

Anthropology and my Master’s in Human Security was very useful to me. First of all, the analytical skills acquired through studying these subjects were extremely useful. I had to create everything from the bottom-up – and I had a lot of research and analysis to do. For instance – if you are going to create awareness and solidarity, execute communication strategies, create local partnerships for people with dementia on their terms – then you have to know the spirit, characteristics, and resources of your particular municipality. The task I was faced with was a very different one from making a big city like Aarhus dementia-friendly for instance. 

This municipally in East Jutland was fairly politically under-financed, a rural setting with only a few business settlements, and with a relatively high age demographic. A sensitive recognition of the context you are working in, helped me a lot in this job. I believe I acquired that sensibility through anthropology as well as Human Security, as those programs taught me the importance of attending to political, economic, and demographic settings.

Also, the ability of critical reflection, as learned in these subjects, also helped me a lot. Asking, for instance, questions as ‘for whom are we doing this’, proved very useful to me. In working with vulnerable people, work ethics became very important. Often, one can have a tendency to ‘speak on behalf’ of the vulnerable, as these people might appear as scarce in mental and physical resources. An unequal power relation can, thus, arise. Attending to these questions, I tried, to the best of my capabilities, to make initiatives committed to the wishes and priorities of people living with dementia close to them. It was important to me to let their words be determining of the actions I took. 

Any advice for graduates looking for at job?

Don’t get discouraged by the media’s ‘humanities-bashing’, but be aware of it. This is not to say that I succumb to the harsh comments made towards us, definitely not. I have learned through this job that humanities are extremely valuable. But, at the same time, we have to be aware, and recognize, the potential difficulty of getting that first, crucial job. It can be, and was for me, a rather hard process. Especially mentally. And I believe that if you recognize the path of getting there as potentially difficult, you are less inclined to be frustrated by the wait of it, and more prepared to recognize the small steps that will eventually lead you towards your goal.

The first job can be a challenge. I was new to having a “real” job within this field, and new to the rules of the game of working within a political setting. Also, having the responsibility of an entire project that could potentially have very real consequences in peoples’ lives, is a tough one. I had only myself to ensure and facilitate this whole project within a limited budget and a minimum of allocated resources, and I was under the same pressure of meeting deadlines, creating and reporting results and ‘satisfying’ both the needs of our citizens and the political and financial obligations. In such a situation, everyone needs to make their own choices about ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’. I will not attempt to make any absolute claims of those rights and wrongs. I ended up doing a wonderful job and received much appreciation and praise – perhaps because I was aware of the choices and priorities I made along the way, and I found my own path.

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