Dementia Elevator

Staff members who have completed the training at Arboretum Garden and Lifestyle Centre in Carlow found it highly informative

In response to the increasing prevalence of dementia across Ireland, the Dementia Elevator team based at Dublin City University have developed free, online training for frontline retail staff. This aims to provide retailers with some basic skills to support customers with memory loss or dementia. Gillian Hamill caught up with the programme’s Ann-Marie Coen to learn more about what the training involves



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19 February 2016

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Elevator logoSome key tips to support customers with dementia:

  • Give the customer time, ensuring they don’t feel rushed, even if it is busy.
  • Maintain eye contact and speak clearly and plainly in a warm, friendly manner.
  • Count out change with the customer.
  • Ensure all signage is clear and easy to read.
  • If possible, avoid too many layout changes which can be confusing.
  • Avoid loud music.
  • Be dementia aware: if a customer behaves in a way we don’t understand or seems vulnerable, consider that it might be dementia.

Dementia: A much more sensitive topic than the business issues we normally discuss in ShelfLife. Nevertheless it is an important issue to confront head-on. There are currently 48,000 people living with dementia in Ireland and this figure is set to triple in the next 35 years. What’s more, although it is commonly associated with old age, the statistics show one in ten of people with dementia are actually under 65 years of age.

When we think of dementia, we often think of the support family carers and health professionals give to those who have the condition. However retailers can also play an important role in helping support people with dementia within their local community.

Maintaining independence

Two-thirds of people with dementia are living in the community and many continue to carry out everyday activities such as shopping. Yet, some will face challenges in carrying out these everyday store visits and will need support and understanding from retail staff.

In response to this issue, the Dementia Elevator team,  based at Dublin City University have developed free, online training for frontline retail staff to provide some basic skills to support customers with memory loss or dementia.

“The whole idea behind Elevator is that we want to upskill a range of different people who might encounter people with dementia on day-to-day basis,” the programme’s Ann-Marie Coen tells ShelfLife. “Even just small acts of support can go a really long way and often mean the difference between a person returning to use that service or not, so that’s the whole point of our project and that’s the idea behind the elevator concept; everybody moves up one level on their knowledge of dementia.”

Customer care staff at Blanchardstown Shopping Centre who have undergone the training in a group session

Customer care staff at Blanchardstown Shopping Centre who have undergone the training in a group session

‘No absolute black and white’

The free, online training, which can be accessed at, takes only 45 minutes to complete and will help raise staff’s awareness and skills when serving a customer who may possibly have dementia. Coen explains in more depth what this training will involve. After a ten second registration process, retailers can access four modules, which Coen describes as “short, engaging and interactive”. These contain filmed scenarios that demonstrate the best approaches to use for people with dementia in a retail setting. “What we have done is we’ve looked at the not-so-recommended way to approach somebody with dementia and a better way,” Coen explains. However she is keen to stress that “there’s no absolute black and white. It’s about looking at the best way to approach a person in that particular situation.”

As well as the four modules, which don’t all have to be completed in one sitting, a resource pack is also available online for group delivery of the training. The ideal result, according to Coen would be to have retail groups embed Dementia Elevator’s training within their own training programmes. “We’re calling on retail outlets to look at the training, to take part, to get involved,” she enthuses. “We would really love them to take it, put it on their company website, promote it to their staff and embed it into their training policies.”

Not diagnosing dementia

To those to whom the training may seem daunting, Coen stresses that diagnosing dementia is completely different to being aware of the prevalence of dementia and acting in a dementia-friendly manner. “We’re not expecting retailers to diagnose dementia because that’s a very difficult process, even for medical professionals,” she says. “But what we’re asking them to do is to be aware of dementia and be aware that some behaviours that they might not understand, might be dementia. If it is dementia, there are many ways that we can support the person.”

Much of the advice given in the programme can be easily incorporated into a retailer’s overall customer service strategy. Seemingly simple things can have a huge impact in terms of helping someone with dementia to continue to live independently within their local community and go about their everyday daily lives with more confidence. “Firstly, we would stress the importance of not rushing a customer, even if they’re getting a little bit confused at the counter or perhaps they might have forgotten their PIN number, just the importance of giving that person a little bit of time and ensuring they don’t feel rushed is massive,” says Coen. “The importance of counting out change and ensuring that the person knows exactly what change they have, is also key. Just basic good customer service as well; with warm, open body language and a warm tone of voice.”

A more positive way

Another important message that the programme wants to spread is that people with dementia still have abilities. “One of our key messages is to give support and not sympathy,” says Coen. “It’s about looking at what we can all do to help people with dementia and it might even be about examining the way that we look at dementia ourselves. We’re asking people to look at it in a more positive way, to focus on the person’s abilities and support them in maintaining their independence.”

The Dementia Elevator team are also keen for stores to let all their customers know they’ve participated in the scheme. “It’s wonderful if they have done it but they need to let the customers know as well,” says Coen. “That way, the customer will say, ‘My local shop is actually interested in helping people with dementia and I feel comfortable going there now’. That is also hugely reassuring for families and carers as well.”

Layout changes

A number of practical measures are recommended in the programme (see panel for further details). This includes avoiding too many layout changes which can be confusing for people with dementia. However, at ShelfLife, we know the pride many retailers take in a fresh, new revamp and were keen to hear how the effect of planogram changes could be lessened for those with dementia. “It’s part of the retail business; you want to promote your goods and if that means changing the layout, then so be it,” concedes Coen. “But what we’re asking retailers is to just be aware of how these changes can impact on an individual. So if they do change the layout, maybe it’s just about making sure that the signage is very clear so that people are clearly directed to where the goods are now placed. Having wide aisles and a bright and airy space is a really good direction to go in to support people with dementia. Giving a person lots of space to browse so that they’re not actually bumping into other people is hugely important, as is making use of natural light as much as possible and making sure the store is well-lit. All of these factors can make a difference. We’re not asking people to make drastic changes, we’re just asking them to look at the impact of their changes.”

Retailer feedback

When designing the programme for retailers, the team spoke to people with dementia and retailers and asked them what they thought should be included in the modules, and how they would envisage the initiative being rolled out. “The stigma involved is a big issue with dementia and many people with dementia reported that it’s not so much the condition that’s the difficult aspect, it’s actually how they’re treated by other people and how other people view them,” says Coen. “Sometimes they think that they have no abilities at all, and sometimes there’s maybe a tendency to over-care, so it’s about looking at what the person can do.”

A number of retailers whose staff have already completed the training, say they were impressed with the way the course is broken down and the advice it provides. Rachel Doyle, managing director of Arboretum Garden and Lifestyle Centre in Carlow, is one such retailer. Doyle told ShelfLife: “We had all of our staff trained on the programme and found it excellent. My mam, who had dementia and is no longer with us, was and is the reason why I am so aware of the condition.  I wanted to know more about it and apply it to our business, and our team in Arboretum have all found it very informative.”


The Dementia Elevator programme is a three-year project based at Dublin College University, which is led by Dr Kate Irving and co-funded by the HSE and Atlantic Philanthropies. For more information on the initiative and to access the free training resources for frontline retail staff, log on to






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