Last month results were published from a YouGov poll that asked young people aged 8-17 about their attitudes towards dementia. The poll revealed that nearly a third of young people know someone with dementia, and 62 per cent would like to help someone with dementia but lack the understanding to do so.
Traditionally the belief has been that children should be shielded from the realities of dementia, but as our population ages - and with a prediction that over two million people are expected to develop dementia in the next ten years - most under 18's are likely to know someone within their family, circle of friends, neighbourhood or wider community who is living with dementia within their lifetime.
My personal experience is that my dad began developing dementia when I was just 12 years old, although I really understood very little about what was causing the changes he was experiencing until 10 years later. But this doesn't have to be the experience of today's young people. As grandparents, aunts, uncles or parents develop a type of dementia, it isn't realistic or healthy to ignore the need children have for an age-appropriate understanding of what is happening to the people they love.
The children polled were certainly clear about what they thought adults should be doing to improve understanding of dementia. 55 per cent of the children surveyed expressed the view that if people understood more about dementia, life would improve for those affected. Moreover, 65 per cent of the children surveyed said they believed that people who are living with dementia should be supported and included in everyday life.
Children often notice more than adults give them credit for. If a relative is living with dementia, there may be a need to explain to a child about particular symptoms or why that person can no longer do something that they used to do. Educating children about dementia can help to enforce the need to respect older generations, teach children key qualities of care and compassion, patience and kindness, and it can stimulate creativity. I've been sent many examples from students in their late teens who have channelled their personal experiences of a loved one's dementia into art and craft projects.
To help support the ambition of a dementia-friendly generation, the Alzheimer's Society have created resources to help teachers, youth group leaders, parents and young people. For teachers covering PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education), as well as science subjects and citizenship, there are details of Dementia Friends sessions designed for young people, Key Stage 3 resources and a teacher's handbook.
Youth Group leaders are encouraged to host Dementia Friends sessions, get involved with their local Dementia Action Alliance and form links with neighbouring care homes. As someone whose dad spent nine years in three different care homes, I highly recommend intergenerational work to support activities, hobbies or entertainment in residential settings - it can be hugely beneficial for everyone involved.
Children who undertake this type of education in school, college or a youth group can also become educators themselves, taking the messages they learn home to their families and helping the adults in their lives understand more about dementia. Whilst the current older generations often view dementia through quite stigmatised eyes, educating children today about dementia is an opportunity to remove the stigma of dementia tomorrow, improving the lives of future older generations and creating more cohesive communities.
Dementia education doesn't just belong in formal structures though. Alzheimer's Society have resources to help parents talk to their children about dementia, and age-appropriate information for younger children as well as teenagers, plus links to videos and other content that either feature children and young people talking about dementia or that are aimed specifically at younger generations.
Of course discussing any terminal disease will inevitably lead to questions about mortality and death, but again these are facts that are inescapable in a young person's life, particularly as relatives age. Equally, however, there are lots of positive public health messages associated with living well with dementia and reducing your risk of developing dementia.
I only wish these resources had existed when I was a teenager. As a younger person with a parent who had dementia, I had a lot of stigma to deal with from my peer group. I hope a young person in my position now would have a better experience, and most importantly of all, that though intergenerational work we can improve the lives of people who are living with dementia today, tomorrow and in the future.