Dementia Research Conference Scotland Edinburgh

Forging New Frontiers in Dementia Research – Edinburgh

As the end of the PhD draws ever nearer, I’m finding myself thinking more and more of the next steps… where will this take me? what will I be doing this time next year? Will I continue in research, in clinical work or manage to find a role that combines both?

With all this running through my mind it was great to have the opportunity to fly off to Edinburgh and spend a couple of days with other people completing their PhDs in dementia care, scoping out the future of dementia care research whilst building some great networks.

Here are my reflections and, of course, as always, my take-away points which I hope will also be helpful for all those dementia researchers out there, in case anyone is losing the will a bit!

The conference was very different to anything I’ve been to before – with less listening and more doing! It was personal, inspiring and fun.

The days were split between listening to others talk and joining in different and creative activities:

  • A range of practical and informative talks:
    • Al Innes showed us the funding landscape,
    • Agnes Houston shared her experiences of living with dementia and involvement in research,
    • Rob Thomas described his experiences of being a carer of a loved one with dementia leading to conduction dementia research,
    • Megan O’Hare navigated us round the NIHR website and where to look for future opportunities.
      Certainly an inspiring group of people – the world is our oyster!
  • On the afternoon of day 1, we spent some time being arty and creative! We made a mandala of all our self-representing objects, and then wrote haiku poems! There was a real connection felt between everyone there.

It was exciting to feel and be part of the buzz and rumbling of motivation, inspiration and passion for the future of dementia care.

  • Day 2 afternoon we had the privilege of Fiona McNeill Associates facilitating an afternoon of Appreciative Inquiry. We weren’t allowed to have paper, pens or any devices out during this exercise – a real challenge as you can imagine!As a result my memory has faded as to what we actually did (we will have a report from them to remind us!). What I do remember was an afternoon of discovering (what we are already doing so well), dreaming (of an ideal future for dementia care and research), designing (action plans for how we would do this) and delivering (hypothetically! Specific action plans for each person).

    Although the actions were just a part of the exercise it was refreshing to dream and come up with something quite feasible for using the connections made at the conference beyond Edinburgh and into each of our dementia research careers.

Most importantly, these exercises revealed a room full of compassionate researchers.

The driver of their amazing work now and in the future? A heart for the people they are aiming to help.

My highlight of the 2 days

3 talks by “successful researchers in dementia care” – none of whom would identify themselves in that category, which was telling!

It was uplifting to hear from these researchers; nearing the end or retired from their careers, not condescending but humble, not losing sight of the reason for their careers – to improve the lives of people with dementia through effective and relevant research.

So, I leave you now with some excellent quotes and advice from Professor Charlotte Clark, Professor Brendon McCormack and Dr Harriet Mowatt – in our eyes successful, but as Dr Mowatt said:

“Success is a negotiable commodity”

  1. Work/life balance does not necessarily mean keeping them separate. What is important to us makes us who we are at work and at home. If we care about our work, which was very evident among everyone at the conference, it is part of who we are. The challenge we received – are we flourishing as people? Both at work and in the rest of our lives.
  2. Be comfortable living in times of a state of mess and not knowing – let yourself say “I don’t know”, it’s liberating! We can only learn what we don’t know.
  3. “Hang onto the coat tails of others” – I love this one! Connect with critical connections and when you find lasting ones, don’t let them go. Ride on the wave of other’s success if needed!
  4. Be clear of (and don’t let go of) your core values. You need to be connected emotionally to what you are doing in order to make a real difference to people’s lives through research.
  5. Be prepared to shift your gaze as you age! Goals and aspirations are great, but be prepared to be flexible, and keep hold of what really matters in life!

You need to be connected emotionally… to make a real difference to people’s lives through research.

PHD Update Celebration - Dementia Care Research

Where have I been? A PhD update & some top tips for getting through one!

It has been FAR too long since I sat wrote a blog post, so firstly I apologize for my absence!

So what have I been doing these last few months?

The last time I left you, I was feeling motivated and passionate about my clinical academic role and my future. I can’t stress how important those moments of enthusiasm, positivity and motivation are in this PhD journey:

It’s been a tough few months!

You’ll remember my analogy of the PhD being a roller coaster ride. Well, I feel like the last few months have been one long, slow, HARD trudge up a slope. In fact I think the cart might have stopped half way up!

Being positive and persistent is very important, but I think it’s more important to write really honestly here. I don’t want to cover up how difficult this journey can be with positive and motivational snippets.

The last few months has not been without major stress, panic and anxiety attacks, feelings of losing control, and tears. Of course the ‘cart’ never actually stopped – but it has been hard!

Read more

Why I love being a clinical academic: A week of reminders

A couple of weeks ago I had a very positive week – a series of events that inspired me and reignited my motivation to be a ‘clinical academic’ (or rather, my full title: Clinical Doctoral Research Fellow (CDRF))!

The opportunities this role is already providing, and will provide in the future, are unique and certainly would not have been available had I continued in my full time clinical role as an Occupational Therapist.

My encouraging week was made up of three separate events: the CDRF Conference, teaching undergraduate Occupational Therapy students, and meeting a final year OT undergrad to discuss clinical doctoral research fellowships.

1) CDRF Conference

This was an event for clinical academics within the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Southampton. I presented my first ‘3 minute thesis’ style presentation which was nerve wracking! It seemed to go well as it was followed by some engaging questions and positive feedback. Thankfully I was first up so could relax and enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

Naomi Gallant Clinical Academic Presentation - Dementia Care Research

My highlights from the conference:

Other research projects

I’ve said it before: hearing about other projects and the variety of professions doing research makes me excited to be part of something bigger.

A PhD can be a lonely journey, perhaps especially when pursuing a clinical academic route – you can read more about this in my previous blog post “Should Clinical Practice be Secondary to Academic Research?”. Listening to talks about other research topics and seeing people present from various stages of the PhD process makes me feel part of a collaboration of people who are fired up and set to change the scope of our future health care.

Post-doc clinical academic stories

It was really encouraging hearing from Annabel Rule and Lotty Brooks – our trailblazers who are (almost) out the other side of the PhD. Both also happen to be Occupational Therapists! They presented on their roles since completing their PhD: each very different but comforting to know how many options there are following this.

Annabel (in the final stages of her thesis write up) has taken a more clinical route to begin with, managing a team of Occupational Therapists in older person’s medicine in acute care. This job is very relevant to her PhD research project! She described how, despite it being a clinical role, her skills and expertise gained during the PhD are invaluable. My favourite quote: “being a clinical academic is a state of mind – not just a job role”.

“Being a Clinical Academic is a state of mind – not just a job role”

This is a challenge for me to continue to be a “Clinical Academic” in my mindset, whatever happens in 2 years’ time –  always keeping impact on clinical practice at the forefront of my research mind, and always implementing research skills and evidence based practice into my clinical work.

Lotty has had a bit longer since completing the PhD. In that time she started off being employed in a full time research role, before the amazing opportunity arose to have a clinical academic role. She is now using her clinical, research and project management skills towards a job that involves clinical service development, seeing patients, research, and having input into the undergraduate teaching material for Allied Health Professionals. This kind of role feels very far away, but Lotty left us with some encouraging words: “The PhD is a marathon not a race”

“The PhD is a marathon not a race”

To bring it back to the present (after all I have a considerable distance of that marathon yet to complete!), the clinical doctorate also provides opportunities right now that I wouldn’t have had otherwise…

2) Teaching undergraduate Occupational Therapists

Just a couple of days after the conference, I co-facilitated a workshop for undergrad Occupational Therapists about communication with people with dementia (stay tuned for top tips in my next blog post!).

This is honestly one of my favourite things to do – to share my learning, knowledge and enthusiasm with the next group of people to be entering and shaping the NHS, and particularly the world of Occupational Therapy. I’m not far into that process myself but far enough to be able to teach the people in the same place I was 9 years ago(!!!)

The group were really engaging, asking lots of questions which made us realise how much we have learnt in our time as clinical academics researching dementia care! Afterwards we were able to feedback to each other, with some positives and negatives about teaching and facilitating techniques.

What an amazing opportunity, just 2 years into the role. It made me realise how I can inspire the next group of Occupational Therapists – not only in becoming excellent health professionals but also promoting the need for research in practice and even the clinical academic role.

3) Meeting with final year Occupational Therapy student

As if to consolidate my feelings, the same afternoon I was able to meet for coffee with a final year Occupational Therapy student to answer questions about the clinical academic pathway. It was ideal timing for me to honestly reflect on, and share, my journey so far. It is great to be able to encourage others to take on the challenge of embedding research into clinical practice, while continuing to grow and develop as an Occupational Therapist in practice.

I had a lovely email that evening from the student expressing her excited anticipation of applying for the clinical academic doctoral post – the perfect ending to an inspiring and motivating week!

Being a clinical academic isn’t always easy

You will know this from following my blog posts so far!

Still, this week of sharing the ride, influencing and inspiring others, was exactly what I needed to consolidate my enthusiasm about the clinical academic role.

It was just the push I needed to keep going, enjoying the opportunities I have now and keeping my eye on the goal ahead!

Phd Rollercoaster Ride

The Phd Rollercoaster Ride

As I browse through my past blog posts, one sentence strikes me as particularly amusing (from the post ‘1 year doing a PhD – things are starting to happen!‘ )

“I’m close to submitting the 3rd…milestone…– it’s time for the pace to pick up!”

Well here I am 8 months later and it certainly doesn’t feel like any pace has picked up!

The Phd roller coaster ride

I like to think that the point at which I wrote that post I was teetering on the highest point of the roller coaster tracks, having trudged up the hill, slowly and laboriously, almost to the point of completing my research proposal. The view was amazing – data collection, research findings, publications and presentations were all on the horizon.

Then I submitted!

Read more

sweden beauty lake river trees - Dementia Care Research

Dementia Summer School in Sweden #demsum

Sweden. A beautiful land of trees, lakes, more trees and more lakes.

The country is also home to at least two internationally-renowned ‘centres of excellence in dementia research’, in Linköping University and the Karolinska Institute, and it is the land which I was honored to visit last week!

The Alzheimer’s Society and NIHR provided funding for an amazing opportunity for Dementia PhD Researchers around the UK and Sweden to get together to learn, network and be inspired. I am privileged to have been a part of it!

So, apart from taking away a selection of Swedish vocabulary, exploring the beautiful city of Norrköping, and enjoying a stunning train journey from Stockholm to Norrköping at sunset, here are my reflections on a fantastic few days:

Read more

PhD 1 Year | Dementia Care Research

1 year doing a PhD – things are starting to happen!

Just over a year in, and I’m close to submitting the 3rd and final milestone of my clinical-academic PhD – it’s time for the pace to pick up!

This milestone is my research proposal, combining and justifying all the procedures and theory that underpin the research project, and laying out a plan for how it’s all going to work in action.

Milestone 3 is a great time to look back, to realise what the last year has been all about.

Learning, learning, learning!

  • Background work – hours spent on reading papers and publications, completing the University of Tasmania Understanding Dementia MOOC, attending conferences, networking events and much more!
  • Completing my literature review – something I’ve never really done to this extent before, moulding my research idea to be filling a gap, and adding new knowledge – such an exciting prospect!
  • Research training – 5 modules giving me the basis of how to be a researcher, even beginning to understand the difference between Methods and Methodology!

…the juicy bit begins

Milestone 3 is also a great time to look forward. Once I have jumped this hurdle I can start the process of Ethical Approval and then actually begin some data collection! (Fingers crossed!)

What comes next?

So, for those of you tracking my progress here’s the summary of what I plan and hope to do:

  • Observe meal times using Dementia Care Mapping (stay tuned for another blog about this amazing tool!).
    In a nutshell: it will be used to measure people’s well-being and engagement during the meal time, and to see what is going on around meal times that may impact the experience.
  • Start to build a model of areas which influence the eating process for people with dementia on acute hospital wards.This might be able to be used in future to understand what the problems may be, as well as in education and training for health care staff on hospital wards – I may as well aim high with the impact of this work!
  • Interview staff about the tools currently used to encourage eating and drinking, and what they see their roles as in this process. You will be aware of my passion to see Occupational Therapists doing more to impact nutrition care plans in acute hospitals and this part of the research will hopefully start to reveal what might be stopping that at the moment.

So to conclude, I have come to realise I’ve done a lot in the last year, and I’m super excited for what is to come!

Reaching a phd milestone is a good time to look back

PhD Progress and Academic Advice – What I learned in my first PhD milestones

It has been a while since I last posted so I thought I would update you on my progress. The last couple of months have been primarily spent working on my 2nd milestone – the initial literature review.

What does this involve?

A lot of searching databases, a lot of reading, and a lot of learning! My conclusion: confirmation of my belief that dementia care in acute hospitals, more specifically during meal times, is a much needed and relevant research topic.

So, despite ups and downs, despair and breakthrough: the times I wanted to give up and the times I may have lost my passion and direction, I am (for now) ready to soldier on!

Relief is the best way to describe how it feels to finally submit this milestone. Pulling all the work together, and realising my final conclusion, has lifted me back up to carry on. On top of this, a reflection on the last 9 months has given me the little boost I needed.


Having started in February of this year, I missed the initial research modules provided to the new starters of last October; therefore, I found myself, this October, in the ‘research training’ with a group of amazing enthusiasts ready to start their own Masters and PhD programmes. In addition to the valuable teaching from the module I began to realise something else – I actually have made progress personally, professionally and academically in the last 9 months! Being able to answer some of the worries and concerns these people felt as they entered the unknown instilled some self-confidence, in that I have the answers to SOME of the questions.

Some practical tips!

In light of my experience so far I will leave with a little advice for anyone embarking on this journey (or thinking about it):

1. There will be good times and bad, and you will not always feel positive but keep your eye on the goal and keep hold of why you chose to take this path.

2. Right from the beginning keep a record of your search strategy and reading – this will save a lot of time!

3. Use each other for support, meeting up for coffee is not a waste of time (unless it’s too often!). Often talking through and encouraging each other can give you the boost you need!

4. Value your clinical work, don’t lose focus on the reason for choosing a clinical academic pathway.

5. Finally… this advice from Dame Jessica Corner: “the first step to changing the world is to believe what you are doing is important.”

Should Clinical Practice have to be secondary to Academic Research?

The Clinical Academic pathway I am undertaking involves splitting my time, 60% academic and 40% clinical – this is often a tough ask. Priorities must be balanced and schedules carefully managed. With this split, the question often raised is this: during my PhD, is my clinical work secondary to my academic?

I would argue no!

Of course, research is important – why else would I have chosen to commit the next 4 years of my life to it? Research is essential for developing innovation, knowledge and understanding, consequently responding better to an evolving healthcare system. Undertaking the PhD will enhance understanding in how to apply research in clinical settings and to ensure evidence-based practice.

  1. I consider attaining my PhD in the next 4 years as the key to my future – so why is my clinical time just as important?
    Clinical work is what originally drew me to become an Occupational Therapist (OT) and has driven me to continue: this compassion for vulnerable individuals, and the fulfilment and satisfaction of making a difference in people’s lives. Without clinical practice I could never experience the precious moments where a distressed and agitated person connects through a calm smile, where a piece of music brings a withdrawn person to laugh, sing and dance for a few minutes. These interactions cannot be felt from the “ivory tower” of academia.
    Working effectively and compassionately with patients who have dementia is a highly-skilled role. There is no comparison to clinical practice when developing face-to-face skills and maintaining a passion for giving these people quality of life. 
  2. Clinical practice, as an OT in my case, provides a plethora of skills which pure academia could not. My current role, though not exclusively working with people with severe dementia, is still extremely beneficial. The role enables me to develop my understanding and practice of the complex needs that older people have. In order to maintain functional independence for as long as possible, someone with dementia may also require specialist seating, complex moving and handling care plans, pressure relieving equipment, mobility and functional assessments and much more. These care plans are formed and prescribed using skills which OTs need to develop in practice – not just to read about.
    Without the clinical knowledge that I have developed so far – skills that I will continue to learn and develop – I will not become an accomplished, reliable and effective leader in my clinical field.

Without the clinical knowledge that I have developed so far I will not become an accomplished, reliable and effective leader in my clinical field.
Click to tweet this

The clinical academic route can be a lonely one, not belonging fully in either camp, and it is not without its challenges. Without doubt it takes both time management and discipline to fully commit to both, but there are so many benefits to continuing development in both fields. I am confident that through this course I will be able to contribute to the care of people with dementia in a way that is unique and makes a significant, lasting, difference.


Can phd change the world? Occupational Therapist mug says yes!

Ready to change the world – challenging nutritional care in acute hospitals

On overhearing a 3rd year PhD student saying that “when you start your PhD you think you will change the world but you very quickly learn otherwise, realising your work will be of little significance”, I was horrified and disappointed – what is the point of what I’m about to embark on? Why spend 4 years of my life working towards something which will not have any impact?

Perhaps with the naivity of a new starter, I fought the idea of my PhD being insignificant. Perhaps it is the naivity of a new starter which continues to drive my fight against the disappointment of not being able to change the world, but an inspiring talk from Dame Jessica Corner*, at the Faculty of Health Sciences Post Graduate Conference last week, reassured me I need not be disappointed – that I have started a journey which will create impact on the world to a lesser or greater extent. Dame Jessica advised us that the 1st step to changing the world is to “believe what you are doing is important” and that is certainly something I can acclaim to! My PhD is just a baby step, I am still right at the beginning, but I am confident that Occupational Therapy, Dementia care and reducing malnutrition are all important enough to invest time, money and effort into. There are still plenty of opportunities for my research to fill some gaps and change practice and guidelines for care!

Here are two reasons why I believe what I am doing is important:

  1. We need to listen to those in our care

So far I have found plenty of research on how to improve meal time experiences in long term care settings – environmental changes and strategies to improve social interaction at meal times, for example. There are observations and concerns about insufficient assistance while eating and drinking, and meal times being a task rather than an engaging activity in both long term and acute care. But what about the views of those who, for one reason or another, are malnourished?

What about asking and observing those with dementia in our acute hospitals to really explore and discover the reasons behind not eating and drinking? What about examining the reasons for aversive behaviours at meal times instead of brushing someone off because of their “challenging behaviour” and therefore minimising their independence.

  1. Occupational Therapy skills and the importance of a multidisciplinary approach are not being recognised for their potential impact

After hearing a talk from Dr Tara Sims** at the PGR conference and reading the papers referenced below, I have felt a renewed enthusiasm for being an OT, the impact the skills of an OT can have in care, and especially in challenging poor nutritional care. Occupational Therapists have the skills to assess and evaluate the eating process, as a vital activity of daily living, and can make significant contributions to individualised care plans. Using a holistic approach and activity analysis, we can assess the cognitive, mental, physical, social, sensory and environmental factors around a meal time experience, working with other professions to inform care.

Imagine the impact if OTs, Dietitians, Speech and Language Therapists, Nurses, Doctors and Physiotherapists all combined their extensive skills to comprehensively evaluate malnutrition and dehydration in acute hospital care – I think it’s safe to say we could change the world!


* Dean of Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Southampton
**Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy, London Southbank University


American Journal of Occupational Therapy (2007) Specialized Knowledge and Skills in Feeding, Eating and Swallowing for Occupational Therapy Practice. American Journal of Occupational Therapy 61(6): 686-700

Paul, S. and D’Amico, M. (2013). The role of occupational therapy in the management of feeding and swallowing disorders. New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy 62(2): 27-31.

Clinical Academic Research – Dementia PhD

As I approach the first milestone of my PhD – the formulation of a research question – I felt it would be good to start a record of my studies, to share some of the interesting finds and information that I come across during my time as a doctoral fellow.

So who am I?

Naomi Gallant: newly married and recently embarked on a Clinical Academic PhD with the University of Southampton. As a doctoral fellow in the Wessex CLAHRC, my research is focusing on improving quality of fundamental care for people with dementia in acute hospitals, specifically reducing the risk of malnutrition and dehydration. I’m a qualified Occupational Therapist (OT), graduating from University of Southampton in 2011, since when I have held several OT roles ranging across physical and mental health settings. Not wanting to lose these clinical skills, and realising the importance of research influencing care at the point of delivery, I have chosen to follow a clinical academic route with the aim of collaborating research and practice.

So why dementia?

There is a significant need in our society for an increase in dementia awareness. As the Department of Health (2013) highlights, society is not geared up for the increase in the condition, with avoidance being a common reaction – something which needs to be challenged. Conversations with those outside of the clinical or academic world only serve to emphasize the need for dementia awareness in people who have not experienced it within their own spheres. Comments such as “can someone with dementia really use Twitter?” and “the government have spoken a lot about dementia, it must be a real problem?” have fuelled my desire to spread the ‘Dementia word’.

So why me?

Since 2011 I have worked in a variety of settings, both as an OT and a Health Care Assistant (HCA). My time as an HCA in 2 different dementia care homes initiated my passion for ensuring optimum quality of life for people who are unable to express their needs due to severe cognitive impairment. My experience of seeing people, bed bound, in advanced stages of dementia furthered my realisation of a need for better understanding of, compassion for, and care towards these people.

As an OT I have worked in acute dementia wards, community care teams, and general hospital medical and rehabilitation wards. Despite the variation from specific dementia care settings, and despite a lot of wonderful, compassionate nursing staff, I have seen a need for improved dementia care in all of these places. The need seems especially acute on hospital wards where the environment, staff training and resources are primarily ill-equipped to face the challenge of a growing dementia population.

With all these factors combined, the opportunity to undertake this research – which could in small or large part contribute to future policy making – was one which I could not let pass me by. I hope you enjoy the insight this blog aims to bring into my journey.