As part of the Prime Minister’s challenge on Dementia, David Cameron this week announced that a million people would be trained to be ‘Dementia Friends’, under a scheme led by the Alzheimer’s Society. Dementia friends will be trained to spot the signs and symptoms of dementia, to help improve early diagnosis rates and to help people living with dementia in their local community. The scheme is supported by £2.4 million of funding from the Social Fund and the Department of Health. Anyone interested in becoming a dementia friend can register their interest on the dementia friends website.
There is much to commend about this scheme. If successful, it will not only help to raise awareness of the challenges faced by people living with dementia, but could also lead to positive steps in the direction of creating ‘dementia-friendly’ communities. Making local communities more dementia friendly could help people living with dementia to live more independently for longer. This scheme also helps to recognise the importance of people other than immediate family and friends in supporting and caring for a person living with dementia. All too often, caring for a person with dementia can be an isolating experience, where familial carers slowly lose their own support networks because others don’t understand the challenges that dementia presents.
One difficult aspect of living with dementia that this scheme could help with is the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia. In a focus group as part of the Duties to Care project, one of our participants told us this story:
“The stigma is something I came across once. I was staying in a guest house where there was shared tables for meals and there were a couple on the table, I was talking to somebody beside me who I was just getting to know and she’d noticed I’d got a wedding ring, and asked ‘where’s your husband?’ I said, ‘He’s in care,’ and the other couple got up and would not sit at the table with me because I had a husband who had Alzheimer’s. And I thought ‘wow, I’m not infectious, it’s not an infectious illness, what’s this all about?’”
Let’s hope that the ‘Dementia Friends’ scheme can do something to reduce the stigma attached to dementia in society.
It seems to me that there is also an important ideological shift associated with making caring for people living with dementia a priority for communities, rather than individuals and private families. In an ideal world, moving towards collective responsibility for care might help to off-set some of the individual costs of caring, provided the scheme offers real help and support to people living with dementia. On the other hand, as part of the ‘Big Society’ vision, we must also be alert to the possibilities that rather than increasing (state-funded) support for people living with dementia and those who care for them, initiatives that push the emphasis onto communities to support each other are also tied to the aim of reducing the financial responsibility of the state for service provision. All too often in the dementia care sector, there are excellent services for some, and limited or no services available to others depending on where they live. Let’s hope that this is a project that, if successful, will continue to be financially supported through public funds to ensure parity of access, rather than relying on charitable support that can be geographically variable.