For some people it happens long after I have met them, when they are chatting with a friend, relative or colleague and start to notice worrying signs. Others may experience it whilst observing a stranger at the shops or just driving down the street and identify someone who may need their support or compassion. But often it is a moment I get to witness; when something I say resonates with that person; when dementia becomes personal and starts to make sense.
Dementia has always been personal to me; it has touched my family since I was nine years old and by my mid-teens both of my grandmothers were diagnosed with the condition. Yet, I was too young to understand fully what was happening to them and how I could help. Whilst my family did the best we could, with good humour, I was not too young to notice the drastic decline from the strong matriarchal women I had known or to appreciate how difficult it is to watch people you love decline in this way.
My personal light bulb moment happened at a work event when I came across a presentation on Dementia Friends, which admittedly I had not heard of before. Many of the messages echoed with my experiences and I was inspired by the ethos of raising awareness and understanding of dementia in communities. I signed up as a Dementia Friend and decided I wanted to be part of spreading these messages where I live in Lincolnshire and to volunteer as a Dementia Champion. I ran my first session in January 2015 and to date have created over 470 dementia friends whilst delivering to a variety of audiences including local schools, District Councillors, Coastguards, church groups, Scouts and Women's Institute groups to name a few.
Working as a health and social care assessor also enables me to engage with those employed in roles supporting people with dementia, providing additional training to help them really see the condition through the eyes of those they care for. I have developed activities and techniques to simulate some of the realities of living with dementia to enable people to develop real empathy to hinge their learning on and adapt their practice. You can almost see the moment it 'clicks' with them as the reasoning behind the actions and responses they encounter becomes apparent: why the lady in her 80s is insistent she needs to collect her children from school, why the gentleman finds the patterned flooring in the hallway so disorientating or why my Nana would put her electric kettle on the gas stove?
The most memorable connections have been with those, like me who have experienced dementia with someone close to them. All too often I hear the same phrase 'I wish I'd known that when my' Mother, Grandad, Aunt or neighbour had the condition. It is this same enduring longing that drives me to continue to raise awareness to enable others to use an enhanced understanding in their personal lives, work or in their local communities to better support and engage with those living with dementia.
Being nominated and winning a Festival of Learning National Social Impact Award for this work has been very humbling and overwhelming, as I genuinely love delivering dementia awareness sessions through my formal work and voluntary roles. Indeed, there are thousands of Dementia Champions just like me across the country giving up their time to spread the same consistent messages to break down some of the stigma and stereotypes of the condition. I accept this award on behalf of us all.
People can live well with dementia with the right support, yet in my experience the biggest factor impacting on individuals' wellbeing is how those around them interact and engage with them, including people in their local community. Respect, compassion and empathy go a long way and are often heightened by greater understanding of the lived experience. Therefore, if you are not already a dementia friend please visit the website to find out more www.dementiafriends.org.uk or to find an information session near you. I can't guarantee you will experience a light bulb moment at the session, but with the 850,000 people known to be living with dementia in the UK predicted to keep rising in the future, that moment is likely to occur in time. You might be chatting to a friend or colleague, doing your shopping or driving down the street and be glad that you attended and are able to make your community a more dementia friendly place in which to live.