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Sydney University Professor and nurse researcher on dementia and gerontology Yun-Hee Jeon has helped improve clinical care for those living with dementia.

Professor Jeon says that often the foundation of her work is person-centred dementia care.

“That really taught me about what works, what doesn’t work and how we need to support people,” Professor Jeon says of the theory.

Developed by British Gero-psychologist, Professor Tom Kitwood, the theory has gradually found acceptance within dementia care since its introduction in the 1990s.

Professor Jeon’s work has been key to establishing that acceptance which has improved the care of those living with dementia across clinical practice, leadership and policy, and has helped challenge the stigmas associated with ageing.

For instance, her work during the 2000s with fellow researcher Lynn Chenoweth highlighted the strength of Kitwood’s model within clinical sites and helped solidify the evidence-based favouring an individualised approach to dementia patient care.

It was the first time a randomised-control study compared person-centred care, dementia-care mapping, and the established institutional norms of the time, demonstrating the strength of a care model centred on an individual’s needs.

“It demonstrated it could reduce some of the behaviours and psychological symptoms that people experience which are associated with dementia,” Professor Jeon explains.

“[It] gave people evidence that person-centred care doesn’t just sound good, it actually has tangible outcomes that we can measure.”

After this study, Professor Jeon sought to use the findings to transform the sector at large, recognising that a broader understanding was needed by senior leaders in aged care for transformative levels of change to take place.

Using an Australian Research Council grant, she produced training workshops to develop clinical leadership in aged care, producing a professional development workbook as a published outcome in 2011.

However, while the project involved collaboration with both health providers and the government, Professor Jeon believes the initiative’s success was hamstrung by the financial limitations imposed on the project.

“Unfortunately… it does require organisational and government support to really embed in the day-to-day delivery of service,” she said of her work on developing models of leadership.

“No one actually ever dares to question the importance of leadership, but it’s like no one wants to invest money in aged care.”

The realisation has led Professor Jeon to re-direct her focus towards community models of care, including the Interdisciplinary Home Based Reablement Program (I-HARP). The program seeks to improve the management of dementia outside of clinical environments in the context of a four to six-month consultation and treatment plan.

“This program is very much underpinned by person-centred principles,” she explains, with the model also influenced by The Johns Hopkins University CAPABLE project.

“Instead of asking the person living with dementia to do things based on what the clinician believes, we work with a client and their care partner to really tease out what the person needs, what the person really wishes to do, and we are setting goals with them so that they have certain things they can aim for.”

The project, which operates as a rehabilitation model, brings together nurses, occupational therapists and other allied health professionals while also setting aside a small budget for modifications to make home environments more accessible.

Acknowledging the project’s multi-disciplinary approach, Professor Jeon says while nursing is still an integral part of the care process, the treatment of a person living with dementia requires a multi-faceted approach beyond what nursing can provide on its own.

“What nurses do is really important, but nurses alone can’t solve all the issues… We really have to work together even though some of the specialty areas require different [types of] disciplinary support,” Professor Jeon says.

“Health is a dynamic process.”

Despite the number of obstacles her work has faced, the nurse researcher remains committed to finding new ways to deliver patient-centred dementia care.

She says that her work with the Step Up for Dementia Research group, which connects with the consumer likely to receive the end benefits of her work, helps keep her motivated as she writes new chapters in her career.

“Having this feedback from these people really grounds me, and it makes you feel that what you’re doing is important,” Professor Jeon says.

“At the end of the day, we want to make someone’s life better.”