This Christmas thousands of people across the country will be alone; they won't be alone in the conventional sense of not having a place stay, or people to look out for them: they will face exclusion because of an illness that can change the very person they used to be. It's estimated that there will be 850,000 living with dementia by next year in the UK, with the festive period noted as being a time of isolation for those affected by the illness.
Awareness of what dementia is remains sketchy, with many of us associating it with 'old age' or forgetting dates or times. However research from the Alzheimer's Society shows that 225,000 people developed dementia in the last year alone, which is the equivalent of one person every three seconds; a greater understanding of this disease is desperately needed. The term dementia is actually used to describe up to one hundred diseases which brain cells die on a huge scale and as things stand there remains no cure.
For relatives living with someone who has dementia, seeing their wife or husband slowly fade away can become an unimaginable strain. Their loved one has become a different person who may end up not just forgetting the day of the week, but the very face of the person they spent a lifetime in a relationship with.
As a child, my grandmother was always the person who I looked up to. She was always there to support me, look out for me and pass on her words of wisdom. Throughout her life she had faced adversity, such as losing both her parents at a young age. But she went on to lead a successful career in the local textile industry. One childhood holiday I remember her speaking fluent French while getting her hair done and being inspired at her confidence and grace. My grandmother instilled in me a sense of self-belief, but one with humility at its core.
During my teenage years I noticed a change, but thought she was just forgetting to do little things such as turn the gas hob off, or when family birthdays were coming up. It wasn't until my grandmother was diagnosed with dementia a few years ago that I began to understand the scale of what was about to happen to her. Over the past five years, I have seen an independent woman become an entirely different person who relies on someone to do even the most basic things for her such as making a cup of tea. She now receives care from my grandfather every day, which can sometimes see my grandmother become angry and aggressive due to simply being confused.
In the Autumn Statement, it was announced that £15 million would be made available to find new innovative cures for the disease. However this news came as a recent report showed that dementia patients are not receiving proper care, due to the illness not being considered as a terminal condition. With a cure likely not to be discovered anytime soon, sufficient care that champions dignity must be the immediate priority for those living with dementia.
Right now families up and down the country will be putting the finishing touches on their Christmas plans and preparations. I know from my family and experiences shared by friends who have relatives living with dementia, this can be a time of year where the strains of the illness can come to a head. Universal pressures associated with Christmas can be sometimes exacerbated when you are looking after someone who can struggle to even cut the food on their plate.
Campaigns such as Dementia Friends highlight the importance of making those living with the illness feel part of the family this Christmas. The initiative shows that people don't have to face exclusion and part of the solution lies in better understanding the disease.
When I see my grandmother on Christmas Day, I know that she will likely not remember that holiday in France, or those words of advice she passed onto me. Soon she may not remember who I am all together, and the grandmother who inspired me will be all but gone. However this Christmas I will share those memories with her, because behind this horrible disease is the grandmother who inspired her grandson to become the person he is today and that's something to treasure.