Health

Angela Rippon: 'Teach the young about dementia'

Image copyright Family Photo
Image caption Angela Rippon with her mother Edna on her 84th birthday in 2004

Broadcaster Angela Rippon became an ambassador for the Alzheimer's Society after caring for her mother Edna who had dementia, and who died in 2009.

Educating children through dementia awareness programmes in schools is, she says the best way to improve understanding of the disease and support those who develop it.

Finding out that these days most people over 50 are more concerned about, even frightened of dementia than they are of cancer, heart disease or stroke, comes as something of a surprise.

Not because it isn't an unpleasant and heart breaking disease, because it is. But because, 10 years or so ago, dementia was an illness that most people knew very little about and as a result, quite frankly, rarely talked about at all - and certainly not in public on television, radio or in the national press.

There was a stigma attached to the disease which meant that people affected by it personally, or through their nearest and dearest, were all too often embarrassed to admit that their own, or a loved one's change of character, bad tempered outbursts, and loss of memory, weren't just the signs of a doddery or eccentric old age, but a severe illness that was affecting their brain.

As a result too many dementia patients were never diagnosed, and often spent lonely and isolated lives, retreating to a world on a parallel universe where the past had more relevance than the present and the closest of family and friends became frightening and unrecognised strangers.

Fortunately, attitudes are changing. And about time too.

Living with dementia - click here to see BBC coverage

With initiatives like the Alzheimer's Society's drive to create Dementia Friends and Dementia Friendly Communities all over the country, several million people are now far more familiar with the symptoms of the disease, and how to support dementia patients and their carers to ensure that they can live well with the disease within society.

One of the most exciting initiatives that's been running for four years now, is the introduction of dementia awareness programmes to schools throughout the county .

Young people have no hang ups about the disease. The word stigma does not appear in their dementia dictionary.

Once they know what dementia is, and the effect it's likely to have on a grandparent or older family member or friend, most of them just accept it and embrace the way the symptoms manifest themselves without fear or judgement .

When I hear from a seven-year-old boy, writing about his grandfather who has dementia, saying that "I love going out with my granddad. He says and does daft things - but we have a great time". Or the 12 year old girl declaring that "The day my nan was diagnosed with dementia, we all got it. Because dementia is a team event" I want to shout for joy. Because kids get it.

Image copyright Family Photo
Image caption Angela Rippon with her mother at Buckingham Palace in 2005 receiving her OBE

Currently some 500 senior and primary schools throughout the UK are working on a whole range of projects that bring them into direct contact with the disease and those affected by it.

I'd love to see even more schools getting involved and recognising the value of this work.

Because the knowledge and experience they are gaining is helping to build an entire dementia friendly generation of young people, for whom the disease will hold few fears or anxieties.

Youngsters who will take that knowledge and understanding into maturity into the workplace and their social circles.

They will recognise the symptoms, if and when they occur, in parents, friends, loved ones, even perhaps in themselves and ensure that the disease is diagnosed early enough to benefit from whatever medical interventions will be available in the years ahead.

Some of the senior students who began as the young pioneers in the first schools to embrace the curriculum four years ago have even based their career choices on their knowledge joining the medical profession or social services to specialise in dementia.

They could even become the generation that finally discovers a cure.

But most importantly - and hopefully, unlike the 50-plus-year-olds of today - they will grow up as an entire dementia friendly generation knowing not to fear dementia, but how to fight it.

Angela Rippon is ambassador for the Alzheimer's Society and presents 'The Truth About Dementia' on Thursday 19 May on BBC One at 2100BST.

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