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Time to Talk About Dementia

11/04/2013 13:24 BST | Updated 10/06/2013 10:12 BST

In all the coverage following Margaret Thatcher's death, very few headlines have been made by the fact that she had dementia. Many refer to her 'failing health' and 'deterioration', and report the stroke that caused her passing, but it seems that mentioning the word dementia when you are talking about a former prime minister is rather taboo.

Yet it wasn't a secret. In 2001 Margaret Thatcher became a Patron of Alzheimer's Research, a charity dedicated to investigating the causes of dementia and finding treatments, preventions and a cure. Just 7 years later her daughter Carol told the world that her mother had been living with dementia since 2000. She described symptoms that are instantly recognisable to anyone who has had a loved one with the disease, and through that provided much of the detail behind the 2011 film 'The Iron Lady' that controversially depicted Margaret Thatcher's dementia.

Following the announcement of her death, the Alzheimer's Society issued a statement, reminding everyone that Baroness Thatcher had been one of the estimated 800,000 people who are living with dementia in the UK. Yet the gauntlet they threw down, once again linking one of the most famous figures in British political history with the disease most feared by over 55's, has been largely ignored.

Maybe we don't like to talk about dementia in the same sentence as discussing someone who, due to the office they held, was considered to be highly intellectual. Like or loath her policies, she was said to have had a brilliant brain, with an ability to remember everything that was said to her and store it away in her 'library' mind for future reference. The realisation that in her later years she asked questions repeatedly, and could barely get to the end of a sentence still remembering what she had said at the beginning, is something that many find hard to contemplate from someone who was once so powerful in UK and world politics.

Then of course there is the opportunity having a disease like dementia affords to those looking to poke fun or savage someone they disliked. Dementia, however, is no laughing matter. Nor is our inability to tackle the stigma surrounding it by avoiding discussing it, especially when talking about high profile figures in society that should, in theory, provide a platform to bring the disease out into the open.

Admittedly things are changing, slowly. The current Prime Minister's 'Dementia Challenge', and the profile of projects like 'Dementia Friends' and 'Dementia Friendly Communities' mean that the disease is slowly seeping into the public consciousness, but much more needs to be done. I have written extensively in the past about the stigma surrounding dementia, with 'Dementia - You can't catch it' and 'Fear factor' being just two examples of how I have highlighted the lack of understanding and awareness about the disease.

Dementia is no respecter of intellect, position, privilege, gender, race, sexuality, religion or background of any kind. Whether you remain in a grocery business all of your life, or rise to the highest office in the land, you are still at risk of developing it. If you do, whilst an elevated position or favourable financial circumstances may bring with them more options for care and support, the fundamental attitudes of the society that you live in are less easy to influence.

Maybe that is why those closest to Margaret Thatcher rarely spoke about her dementia. In the tributes paid since her passing, Conservative politician Norman Tebbit described Baroness Thatcher's death as, "A merciful release for her from a life which must have been increasingly empty in recent years." Words that serve as a reminder of just how hopeless many people still believe a life with dementia is.

Yet I would counter those sentiments by highlighting the many positives from our experiences of my dad's dementia. Life, in all its forms, is largely what you make it, and whilst we had many struggles and tough times, I would give anything to still have my dad by my side, dementia and all.

As Margaret Thatcher joins the many people with dementia who have passed before her, and debates rage about her political legacy, I would argue that this is a time to talk as openly about her most recent experiences as it is to reflect on her career. An opportune moment for us all to think about what having dementia means, whether you are a former prime minister, a doctor, a professor, a grocer, a bus conductor or a refuse collector. Dementia brings a whole new meaning to being 'all in this together'.