By Resham Khiani

This is where the Rock’s first ever GHA Physician Associate, Sonal Samtani, plays a massive role, amongst others, to gather medical guidelines and statistics on dementia. With sparse information available on the Rock, Sonal realised having structures in place on how to deal with patients and assess them would be necessary and useful in understanding the illness. She humbly confesses that “Funnily enough, I don’t feel like I chose to study dementia, but more like the subject chose me”.

It seems fate has led her to her life purpose. With a degree in Biochemistry from the University of Warwick, along with a Physician Associate postgraduate from Birmingham University under her belt, Sonal clearly wanted to belong to the medical world. After returning to Gibraltar, she was successfully hired via the graduate scheme by the GHA to “contribute towards the national dementia strategy” in April 2012. Such a task would help local medical services keep up with increasing cases of this complex illnesses. Meeting passionate and admirable people who wanted to create a better quality of life for people living with dementia in Gibraltar, became the catalyst for Sonal to pursue this as her career.

Behind her sweet voice and bubbly nature, Sonal was in search of “a purpose and a challenge” to do something “on a deeper level” about dementia: this has led to her currently studying a PhD in Dementia with Queen Margaret Scotland University and the University of Gibraltar.

“I don’t feel like I chose to study dementia, but more like the subject chose me.”

“I am very proud to say I am Gibraltar’s first Physician Associate who works at the GHA’s hospital ward.” This girl really is bursting with energy and passion for her job, never once complaining how busy the day gets. She works directly with patients, takes medical histories (under a doctor´s supervision), writes discharge letters and monitors the prescription charts. Another a to-do task on her list is “following up with investigations and multi-disciplinary meetings”. Apart from this, she hones in on researching the behaviours of dementia patients once a week at the GHA’s memory clinic. To be precise, she is “keeping track of locals with dementia and looks into assessments tests for cognition, quality of life etc.” In other words, every aspect of this illness is under scrutiny to get a full understanding of it.

No doubt Gibraltar Alzheimer´s and Dementia society provides awareness on early detection of dementia and “enthusiasm for more local services”, but in Sonal’s case, she remembers realising what steps she wanted to take in contributing to this global, complex illness. “During the time that it took to gain the position for which I studied, I took an interest in research, especially in Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia. The growing need for statistics and a greater depth of information was evident.”

Her PhD in Dementia focuses on various strands: everything ranging from various stages of the illness, to the emotional, mental and physical burdens as a caregiver, quality of life and cognitive function. The research also incorporates “a national dementia audit”. Hours of studying and analysing data is all for the sole purpose to “bring about a solid foundation and database from which further dementia policies and instrumental tools on evidence basis” can provide a patient centred approach.

According to Sonal’s findings, around 400 people in Gibraltar have dementia – yet statistics are done every 6 months to monitor the demographics. It gives the GHA an indication on how to prepare for a future with the growing number of dementia patients. Already her findings are analysing how dementia services are working on the Rock, giving way to various ideas of what else can be done.

Around 400 people in Gibraltar have dementia.

With the Christmas season upon us, I take the opportunity to ask Sonal for advice on how family and friends can make this time enjoyable for loved ones with dementia. At times the hustle and bustle of the festivities can be stressful, making not only family members anxious, but carers too. Sometimes the atmosphere may overwhelm them she says, but the focus should be on creating an atmosphere of joy.

“They might not know why they are happy or remember all the exact details, but they will be joyful; it’s just important to make them feel loved.”