Imagine waking up every day in complete confusion, surrounded by unrecognisable people who claim to be your loved ones.
Every three minutes, one person in the UK develops dementia and this becomes their reality. More than 9,000 people are living with dementia in Cornwall and this is predicted to rise to more than two million in the UK by 2051.
Despite being one of the primary causes of disability in later life, above both cancer and strokes, government funding for dementia is much less than these other conditions. As a result, two-thirds of costs are paid by the sufferers and families of the person affected.
Dementia can include symptoms like memory loss and sufferers can find thinking, problem-solving and language difficult. It is caused when the brain is damaged by diseases such as Alzheimer’s or a series of strokes and is progressive; symptoms gradually deteriorate until the person struggles to function.
Truro High School for Girls has decided to support the Alzheimer’s Society as one of our four chosen charities for this year. It aims to support and care for those suffering from dementia and their loved ones by running a number of services across Cornwall that range from befriending (through the Side by Side project and the telephone befriending service), dementia support service and Singing for the Brain.
Their volunteer workers, Dementia Champions, also run Dementia Friends sessions to help raise awareness of dementia and the little things people can do to help. When our school heard about the idea of Dementia Friends, we decided to get involved.
By looking to have discussions with those from Alzheimer’s Society and become Dementia Friends ourselves, students and teachers alike are beginning to learn more about what it is like to live with dementia, and then turn that understanding into action.
To understand more about why this charity is so important, I interviewed Truro High School’s Head of Lower School, Andrea Simmonds. “I think that, as a society, we brush off the elderly and see them as people almost less than worthy of love, care, and thought. We forget that they are the generation that care for us and our children, raised us and, most of all, are human beings that deserve respect and consideration.”
The charity also has personal significance to Mrs Simmonds, whose father is currently affected by Parkinson’s disease and dementia. He finds interacting with people challenging and sometimes does not recognise people that he loves. Violence and aggressive behaviour, a common effect of the disease, is exhibited at times, often resulting in having to be restrained by up to four nurses. Sometimes, when he is visited by his daughter, he reacts to ‘Give me a kiss!’ with physical violence, but at other times, he is able to return her affection.
This unpredictability is something that is less well-known as an effect of dementia but is core to the way in which it harms some people. Many suffer a gradual deterioration of their personalities and sense of self along with their memories. “A very difficult part of seeing someone you love with dementia is that they are a shell of a person, and certainly a shell of who they used to be.”
Those with the disease and their carers often find it very difficult to maintain previous relationships. 17% of affected people in the UK said they are not living well with dementia. A third has lost friends following diagnosis, and almost 40% said they felt lonely. Difficulties in social relationships and other features of dementia contributed to this.
Research has identified many risk factors associated with dementia. It’s impossible to eliminate every single one; age is the most significant. While it is possible to develop dementia early in life, the chances of doing so increase dramatically with age. Other things that increase the risk are poor diet, high cholesterol levels, smoking, genetic predisposition, and depression. Read more about risk factors and reduction at www.alzheimers.org.uk/reducemyrisk.
To help in your community, you can help raise awareness of dementia by becoming a Dementia Friend, or you could even consider becoming a volunteer with Alzheimer’s Society or another organisation that supports people living with dementia.
You can also find out about potential volunteering opportunities, like helping if there is a Memory Walk in your area or supporting Alzheimer’s Society staff and volunteers at one of their services.
As a school, we are currently getting in touch with the Alzheimer’s Society’s Community Fundraiser for Cornwall and are starting the process of allowing Dementia Friends champions to roll out information sessions to the whole school, in order to help our school work towards becoming more dementia-friendly. You can find out more about Dementia Friendly Communities on the Alzheimer’s Society website.
As someone whose grandmother is severely affected, this cause means a great deal to myself and my family. Many people view dementia as simple memory issue, but, in reality, it is a disease that removes all personality, responsiveness and a significant amount of happiness from everyone involved. In my experience, it reduces the person that you love to somebody who cannot talk to people or remember their achievements and has no recollection of happy memories shared with people over their lifetime. It is for that reason that I hope that many of us at Truro High School and in the community can get involved and help to raise money and awareness for those dealing with this disease.
Alzheimer’s Society runs a national helpline to support people affected by dementia. People can call their Helpline number on 0300 222 11 22 or use the Live Online Advice service for dementia information and support. There is also a wealth of information available on their website: Alzheimer’s Society – Leading the fight against dementia
Reported by Ezgi Aldemir
BBC School Report