Shelagh’s mission to help make communities across NI more dementia aware

Shelagh McCaughan is a regional trainer for Dementia Friendly CommunitiesShelagh McCaughan is a regional trainer for Dementia Friendly Communities
Shelagh McCaughan is a regional trainer for Dementia Friendly Communities
Ahead of World Alzheimer’s Day on September 21, we meet a local volunteer dedicated to educating communities about the complexities of dementia

Shelagh McCaughan is known for wearing many hats. Big Belfast Choir member, independent social worker, amateur silversmith, ukulele player, jeweller, and St George’s Market stall holder, but she is also a regional trainer for Dementia Friendly Communities.

Belfast-based Shelagh travels around Northern Ireland, voluntarily delivering this training on behalf of the Alzheimer’s Society since learning first-hand the importance of understanding the complexities of dementia.

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Less than a decade ago, Shelagh was the primary carer for her mother who was still living in her own home in Donaghadee at 90 years old with no formal diagnosis. While Shelagh was doing her utmost to support her mother, it was clear she was lonely and unhappy at home and there was a limit to the care Shelagh could provide.

Around this time, one of the wings at Kirk House, a residential care home in east Belfast, had been specially adapted to suit those living with dementia.

Shelagh said: “During the search for a suitable care home for mum, I was lucky enough to find out about Kirk House, but was unaware of Memory Lane, so was worried that mum’s needs would exceed the level of residential care available. It was a wonderful surprise to find out that Memory Lane, the dementia-specific wing, was available.”

As part of the process of a new resident joining the Memory Lane household, the manager at Kirk House, Andrea Selby, conducted dementia awareness training with the resident’s family members and care partners. It was this training that Shelagh freely admits gave her her life back, particularly the relationship with her mother.

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“I always say you can’t know what you don’t know. Had I known more during those early stages of mum’s condition, I could have helped her live well at home. I would have been more understanding, patient, and kind. She was terribly afraid of what was to come, and I could have helped her not to be so scared.”

Shelagh would admit she was begrudging, sad, angry, and impatient towards her mother, largely fuelled by a lack of understanding of what her mother was going through. Following the training at Kirk House, she understood the condition and therefore had the permission to forgive herself and approach it with more empathy,

Following this initial training, Shelagh went to The Alzheimer’s Society for further instruction, later becoming a trainer. She now delivers Dementia Friendly Communities training to organisations such as the Fire Service and the PSNI, retail and hospitality outlets, church and community groups, and anyone else who could benefit from having a more dementia-friendly approach.

It is this dementia-friendly approach that has been incorporated into the design, layout and delivery of care at Kirk House and also at the new Copelands care home outside Millisle.

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Both homes are operated by Belfast Central Mission (BCM) and provide residential care for their residents in a style influenced by the ‘household’ model of care. All staff members at the two homes are put through the rigorous ‘Best Practice in Dementia Care’ qualification devised by Stirling University to ensure the service provision is practice-leading for the benefit of residents and their families.

“As a family member of someone with the condition, it is a blessing to know that you are surrounded by people who are knowledgeable, skilled, and kind in the care of those living with dementia. But the effort that has gone in to ensuring communities, relatives and care partners can also recognise symptoms, behavioural patters and, most importantly, not take things too seriously, is what has truly set the BCM approach apart.

“Thankfully, my mum lived well with dementia at Kirk House. She had fun, continued to be able to make choices, and was looked after by people who were well trained, intuitive, and patient – unlike her daughter!”

Shelagh and Andrea recently appeared on the launch episode of the ‘Because Caring Matters’ podcast from BCM to speak about their personal and professional journeys with dementia. During the episode they signpost The Alzheimer’s Society website as a treasure trove of local NI-wide resources and guidance for any who may be worried about themselves or a loved one.

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Sadly, Shelagh’s mum passed away in March of this year, shortly after having to move into nursing care, yet Shelagh is reassured that her mum had the best possible standard of care during those last years of her life.

In addition to its two residential care homes, BCM offers community-based housing support services across Belfast and the Southern HSC Trust area to help older people live in their own homes for as long as possible, including those with dementia. For more info visit

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