Throughout my career I have worked with people affected by dementia, from working in a care home in my teens to now heading up the services at Alzheimer's Society.
What I've learnt over the years is that yes, dementia is a challenging condition, but it shouldn't be one that stops those living with it from doing what they love, or even trying something new. Yet, because the condition can affect memory, thinking, orientation and language, many people find it difficult to continue doing the things they enjoy.
This really hit home when I watched my late grandfather, who had vascular dementia, become a shadow of himself when he wasn't able to continue his regular activities. For instance, he had never missed a day of church in 92 years. He would go to church every day and twice a day on a Sunday. As his dementia deteriorated, he became increasingly confused as he didn't know whether he had just arrived at the church or whether he was just leaving.
Although he had a great relationship with people at the church, they had limited resources to support him. I can't help but wonder - what if a service had been available which would have helped him continue making the simple trip there? If someone had been able to take my grandfather to church, keep him company and share the experience with him, I'm confident he would have continued going.
Alzheimer's Society's new service, Side by Side, which is supported by People's Postcode Lottery, aims to reconnect people with dementia with their communities and favourite pastimes.
It's a new innovative approach where volunteers are paired up with people with dementia who share similar interests. Together, they look at their own personal talents, strengths and capabilities and what they can bring to their peers and the wider community. From going shopping to having a cup of coffee, people with dementia tell us that they want to remain active in their communities - and Side by Side empowers them to do that. At the same time, volunteers will gain new skills and develop new friendships - it is a mutually beneficial relationship.
Nowadays people are leading busier lives, but Side by Side have been designed so that almost anyone can volunteer. The service is flexible so that people like me, who work full time and have a family, can easily fit it in. A telephone service is available which gives people with limited time the opportunity to volunteer and support someone with dementia.
I signed up to become a Side by Side volunteer because I truly believe in the impact the service will have. I also miss being on the frontline. I remember how rewarding it was to build personal relationships with patients during my time as a healthcare assistant. Being a Side by Side volunteer is a reminder of why I am here today.
When I submitted a short profile of myself as part of the application to become a volunteer, a Side by Side Coordinator paired me up with a woman with Alzheimer's, who had just lost her husband.
We naturally bonded and discovered that, by coincidence, we had both worked at the same hospital many years ago and shared fond memories of our time there.
My profile included that I had a keen interest in gardening and wanted to learn how to make my own jam. I watched how she beamed with pride as she shared her knowledge with me. She took me to a garden centre to teach me about different plants and how to grow my own vegetables. Thanks to her, I've learnt how to make strawberry jam which has gone down a treat with my children.
It was incredibly touching when her daughter told me that since joining the service it was the first time she had heard her mum laugh since her dad died. She said that the neighbours had started to treat her mum differently because of her condition and that she was beginning to lose her purpose. She told me that the friendship we developed through Side by Side brought back her mum.
Alzheimer's Society found that a third of people with dementia lose friends after a diagnosis and nearly two thirds who live on their own feel lonely. Yet, it's remarkable how a simple phone call a week or a day out a month can make a difference to someone's life and help them feel connected to their community.
By 2021, one million people will be living with dementia. So the harsh reality is that you or someone you know will develop the condition. We need to unite together to help people with the condition live well in their communities for as long as possible.
Please join me and become a volunteer. To find out more about the service and to sign up and become a Side by Side volunteer, please visit www/alzheimers.org.uk/sidebysidevolunteer or call 0330 333 0804