• Wendy Mitchell is quite simply one of the most impressive people I have ever met. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease nine years ago at the age of 58, after an initial slump into depression, Wendy has since devoted her time and precious energy to raising awareness of dementia, frequently appearing on our broadcast media – she’s a familiar face on the Breakfast Time sofas – and speaking at major conferences. 

    Wendy’s blog, Which Me Am I Today remains one of my favourite reads and, in writing it, she’s created her own paper memory, something that has enabled her to produce two Sunday Times best-selling books about dementia, Somebody I Used to Know and What I Wish People Knew About Dementia – both written in collaboration with journalist Anna Wharton. 

    This summer, Wendy’s third book, One Last Thing, was published to great acclaim. As with all Wendy’s writings, it comes from the heart and is honest, insightful and highly readable. 

    Which, given its subject matter, is no mean feat. For One Last Thing deals with that most feared of subjects: death and dying. Though, as Wendy says herself, since her dementia diagnosis, she doesn’t fear anything anymore, including death. 

    In her book Wendy turns her mind to the serious matter of her future – which, as it does for all of us, involves her death – in order that she may fully appreciate living now. She explores this knotty, difficult topic through conversations with different people, including friends living with dementia and experts in various aspects of end of life, such as the legal practicalities and medical choices here in the UK.

    Often, she turns the spotlight onto herself: “As dementia dilutes my personhood,” she writes, “I cling to those things that make me who I am – a mum, a blogger, a walker and a photographer. For me, once those parts of me have been taken by this cruel disease, I’ll have lost my personhood and would prefer death to an existence of snapshots of joy, as the time spent in confusion would far outnumber those moments”. 


    Useful contacts:

    Wendy’s blog can be found at https://whichmeamitoday.wordpress.com/  and her latest book, One Last Thing, How to Live With The End In Mind, published by Bloomsbury, is available on Amazon

    Discover more about advance care planning advocate Clare Fuller and her services at https://speakforme.co.uk/

    My Future Care Handbook, an interactive book that helps people plan for later life: https://myfuturecare.org/

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  • My two guests this week are passionate about improving life for people living with dementia, particularly through the education and training of those who support and care for them. 

    Dr Keith Oliver is an expert by experience – 13 years’ experience, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2010, aged just 55 and forced to retire after 33 years in teaching, latterly as a headteacher. Prof Claire Surr, Professor of Dementia Studies and Director of the Centre for Dementia Research at Leeds Beckett University, has attracted global recognition for her research and leadership in dementia education and training for the health and social care workforce. 

    Dr Oliver’s roles and work within the dementia sector are almost too many to mention, but here’s a flavour, starting with the honorary doctorate he received in 2021 from Canterbury Christ Church University.

    Keith Oliver has authored or co-authored four books on dementia since being diagnosed. He is an Alzheimer’s Society Ambassador, a Kent and Medway NHS Trust Dementia Envoy, a member of the 3 Nations Dementia Working Group and a founder member of the Young Dementia Network. It’s worth noting that the definition of young onset dementia is when it affects someone under the age of 65. 

    Keith is often to be seen and heard on television and radio and at national and international conferences, and regularly contributes to newspapers, magazines and professional publications. He recently contributed to an Open University Publication entitled Education and Training in Dementia Care – a Person-Centred Approach, co-authored by Prof Surr. Forming part of the Reconsidering Dementia series, the book is a deep dive into the complexities of this once neglected subject. Like all the other books in the series, as well as being scholarly, it spells out what the theories actually mean for those at the sharp end, such as people living with dementia, their families, those working in dementia care, policy-makers and professionals.  

    Prof Surr’s career has centred on the delivery of truly person-centred care for the 70 to 80pc of care home residents who live with dementia, with a specific interest in supporting care home staff in their roles and methods, and evaluating their impact. Most recently Claire has been involved in researching cancer care for people with dementia.

    Education and Training in Dementia Care – a Person-Centred Approach, an Open University Publication, is available from Amazon.

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  • I am sure that many people listening to my podcasts will be aware of two ground-breaking medical breakthroughs that have occurred in recent months. These are the immunotherapy drugs Lecanemab and Donanemab, which is shown to have slowed the decline in memory and cognition of people with early stage Alzheimer’s disease by up to 40pc. 

    These drugs do not, like others before them, merely mask the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, which accounts for over 60pc of all dementia cases – they modify the disease itself. They bind to the Amyloid plaque that builds up in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s, triggering the body’s own immune cells to remove the destructive plaque. 

    My guest, Dr Richard Oakley, the Alzheimer’s Society’s Associate Director of Research, has described the arrival of Donanemab as a turning point in the fight against the disease.

    Dr Oakley says that treatments like Donanemab are the first steps towards a future where Alzheimer’s could be considered a long-term condition. People may have to live with it, but they could have treatments allowing them to manage their symptoms and continue to live fulfilled lives. 

    The big question is: if the drugs become available in the UK, will the NHS be able to deliver them to those they would most benefit?

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  • In her native America, Lori La Bey has been recognised for her tireless work to improve the lives of those with dementia through creating, discovering and making accessible a wide range of resources. She has been hailed as a Health Hero by none other than Oprah Winfrey and championed as an Architect for Change by the former First Lady of California, Maria Shriver.

    Since walking away from a successful career in real estate in 2009, Lori has launched America’s first radio station dedicated to dementia – indeed, Alzheimer’s Speaks is believed to be the first dementia radio station in the world. Global first or not, Alzheimer’s Speaks gives a voice to everyone, allowing people and companies from throughout the world to share their business and educational resources, products and advice. While a Dementia Map provides a worldwide directory of blogs, relevant enterprises and events to which individuals and companies can sign up to make their offerings available to a wider public. 

    Lori was instrumental in creating America’s first dementia friendly community in Watertown, Wisconsin in 2013, three years later she launched one of the country’s first memory cafés in Roseville, Minnesota. Her webinar series, Dementia Chats, sees the real experts – those living with the condition – offering their invaluable advice.  

    Recently, her children’s book, Betty the Bald Chicken, co-authored with Scott Carlson, was published. As with all Lori’s dementia work, the book is inspired by her mother’s 30 year struggle with Alzheimer’s and her own caring role. But it’s not limited to dementia, Betty’s story applies to virtually any situation in which someone finds themselves on the outside, struggling to fit in and not being understood. It teaches people of all ages that we have much more in common than sets us apart.

    “We need to shift how we care for one another and ourselves from crisis to comfort,” Lori told Maria Shriver. “We need to give hope and support to families and professionals alike, through open conversations, shared life stories and lessons learnt. Dementia is not a disease of one but of society”. 

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  • In this podcast I talk to two women who, in their different yet linked ways, have grown to appreciate the importance of identity, purpose and togetherness.  The common theme isn’t dementia but being the partners of military men – though never fear, dementia plays quite a part in our discussions as you will hear. 

    Heather Sharp and her husband were both serving in the Army when, after having their two children, Heather made the difficult decision to leave. She didn’t know what to expect as a military wife and readily admits she had preconceived notions of coffee mornings and bridge. How wrong she was.

    Heather discovered a diverse, dynamic and resilient group of women who had all made huge sacrifices to support their partners’ careers, and she realised that if this formidable set of women harnessed their skills and experiences they could achieve incredible goals. And so the Forces Wives Challenge was born. Through their feats of endeavour, they raise funds for deserving causes that almost always involve Forces children. 

    My second guest is Steph Quintrell. Another Army wife and mother, Steph worked for many years in the care sector, often among those with dementia, until, in 2019 she was diagnosed with a profoundly life-changing complex neurological disorder and found herself permanently confined to a wheelchair. She says it took her two years to come to terms with her diagnosis. 

    Then she discovered the Forces Wives Challenge on Facebook and immediately recognised the women involved in it as kindred spirits who were, like her, energetic and passionate. She couldn’t physically partake in the physically demanding challenges, so took on an admin role, which she loved. 

    A keen horsewoman, Steph rediscovered freedom and independence through riding and it was her husband John who suggested that, were the Forces Wives to take on a riding challenge, Steph could take part.  

    This June, Steph will be part of the team crossing the Pyrenees on horseback as they recreate the Second World War Freedom Trail, one of the many escape routes over the mountains into Spain. An astonishing achievement for anyone, a true route to freedom and independence for Steph, who told me, “Being part of the Forces Wives Challenge gave me back my sense of being, of identity and purpose. I’m a much happier person now – in fact, I have a happier life now than before my disability”. 

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  • Susie Singer Carter spent her childhood as a gymnast, an entrepreneur (selling her toys door-to-door), debate champion, party planner, flag twirler and cheerleader, while surviving her parents’ divorce and her father’s untimely death in a plane crash.

    While studying journalism at UCLA, she hosted a radio show, modelled and sang in a pop group produced by Chuck Lorre. After college, she opened a handmade jewellery store, acted in TV and film and then decided she wanted to create the projects.  She worked in development, launched a production company, Go Girl Media, and wrote and produced two CBS tween shows.

    When her mother Norma developed Alzheimer’s, Susie became her caregiver and a spokesperson for Alzheimer’s, while writing a screenplay for Lionsgate and co-producing a feature for Sony. She signed a deal with Fox, wrote, produced and directed a pilot with Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame, plus two documentaries for Women’s History Month.

    She launched an award-winning podcast, Love Conquers Alz (available on all podcast platforms), and an award-winning film, My Mom and the Girl, based on Norma’s dementia, starring the late Valerie Harper (aka Rhoda of Mary Tyler Moore fame) in her last, poignant, wonderful performance. My Mom and the Girl is funny, moving and profound – a 20 minute celluloid love story from a daughter to her mum. I strongly encourage everyone to watch it. Here’s a Vimeo link to it: https://vimeo.com/266772460r

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  • I first met professional cellist Dr Claire Garabedian at a wonderful musical evening where three internationally renowned opera singers performed a piece written for audiences of older people and those with dementia.

    She spoke then of the powerful communication – the dialogue, conversation, connection – between the performers and audience members. It seems to me that throughout her extraordinary life Dr Garabedian, who was born and raised in America, has been connecting and inspiring people through music.

    Dr Garabedian has played with modern and Baroque orchestras in the USA, Japan and the UK, and chamber music with many of the world’s greatest musicians. She’s also played her cello in the most intimate of settings, at the bedside of individuals who are dying. 

    It was while doing the latter that she experienced at first-hand what she describes as the “raw, intense realness of death and dying – and a purpose for playing music that is entirely separate from performing”.  

    Fired up by this, she enrolled in an American course using music as a transitional healing force and qualified as a Certified Music Practitioner, enabling her to play her cello at the bedside of people in palliative care.  

    Relocating to Scotland in 2007, she completed an enhanced palliative care course at the University of Stirling which led her ultimately to studying for a PhD in Sociology, exploring the effects of playing familiar music on a solo cello on the relationship between two listeners: a care home resident with dementia in palliative care and someone closely connected to them. 

    Dr Garabedian then became a Researcher of creative arts and dementia at the University of Worcester. She now combines her quite brilliant talents, experience and knowledge to provide services for all sorts of people, from those with health conditions including dementia to their families and carers, to those who are nearing the end of life, to students and, really – as far as I can make out – anyone interested in exploring the use of music to support and connect us all.  

    Dr Garabedian’s website can be found at drclairegarabedian.com

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  • Kate Lee, the chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, describes herself as a good Yorkshire girl, “What you see is what you get”. I last interviewed her in the dark days of December 2020 as people living with dementia in care homes became virtual prisoners, their relatives only allowed to see them through windows.

    Most of those with dementia, who account for over 70pc of care home residents, had no idea what was happening, why their loved ones no longer came to see them, they felt abandoned, alone, frightened. No one was more aware of this at the time than Kate, whose mum Barbara was diagnosed with vascular dementia 18 years ago and now lives in a care home. 

    In this week’s episode, Kate and I talk about her mum and how the long months of lockdowns impacted on her and her dad, who still “flirts terribly” with her mum after 60 years of marriage.  

    We also discuss the terrible toll of Covid on care homes, their residents and staff – and the Alzheimer’s Society’s call for better pay reward and recognition within the care system to ensure that it is seen as a respected profession with proper career progression. 

    Kate describes how the society is partnering with others to introduce innovations such as the Longitude Prize to drive the creation of personalised, technical solutions co-created with people living with early stage dementia to help them live more independent, fulfilling lives. 

    She tells me about their new Help and Hope strategy to ensure their services reach communities who have traditionally not had access to dementia support, and about the need for volunteers to enter clinical trials during the early stages of their symptoms. 

    Kate bemoans the prevarication and delay confounding progress in the largest healthcare crisis of our time. We need leadership and action, she says, not “existential dementia faff”.

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  • Jean Lee is a retired American teacher from Ohio who, like me, is an Alzheimer’s Daughter. However, in Jean's case, both parents were diagnosed with dementia. And – and this is quite extraordinary – they were both diagnosed on the same day. 

    Jean is also, like me, a writer, and after her parents died she penned a memoir of her mum and dad, of their deep, lifelong love for each other and how they and their unbreakable bond weathered the tumultuous storms of dementia. 

    Called Alzheimer’s Daughter, the book is at once a tender, highly personal account of one family’s experiences and a universal story with moments that many of us will recognise only too well. 

    Several descriptions brought back memories for me, perhaps none more so than when, after her parents’ death, Jean is asked whether she’s given herself permission to fall apart. “Absolutely not. I don’t believe I’ll fall apart, because mum and dad will suffer no more,” she says. “I’ve fallen apart for the last ten years, now I’ll put myself back together”. 

    Jean Lee is a consummate writer and an incredible daughter. Though besieged by doubt about publishing her book, constantly worried that she was betraying her parents, it seems to me that in writing it, Jean began to do just what she said she would – rebuild her own life. 

    After her book came an offer to work with another American author, Marianne Sciucco, to gather stories written through personal experiences of dementia into an AlzAuthors collection. 

    That was in 2015. Seven years later, AlzAuthors has over 300 books in their store and more than 300 authors writing for them (including little old me). Three years ago they became a not-for-profit enterprise. Their website signposts readers to caregiver resources and blogs, their travelling libraries, their newly launched customised caregiver collections and their own very good podcast. 

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  • My guests today are Chris Maddocks and Rachel Thompson, two women who both know a lot about Lewy Body Dementia. 

    Chris was diagnosed with vascular dementia six years ago at the age of 60. At the time she viewed it as a death sentence, but the Alzheimer’s Society saved her and when she became one of their ambassadors, she discovered hope and a renewed sense of purpose. 

    Rachel is an Admiral Nurse, a dementia nurse supported by the charity Dementia UK, and she specialises in Lewy Body dementia. Although this form of the condition accounts for roughly ten to fifteen percent of cases, it is still underdiagnosed and misunderstood, and a large part of Rachel’s role is to increase awareness of this lesser-known disease and offer expert clinical advice.

    When Chris was struggling to find any support after being told she had Lewy Body disease, she was put in touch with Rachel and for the first time since her diagnosis, everything began to make sense.   

    Rachel helped Chris and her partner Heather to develop coping strategies for Chris’s symptoms. And, as with all Admiral Nurses, Rachel also offered the couple support with emotional and psychological issues. For as well as the challenges of Chris’s dementia, the pair encountered discrimination as a lesbian couple. They had to contend with what they describe as double stigma: both for Chris’s dementia and for their same-sex relationship. Rachel gave them the confidence to be more open about their status.  

    Chris’s partner Heather put it very well when she said that Rachel’s strategies have taught her not to get hung up on the little things because they don’t matter. What matters, she says, is the time that she and Chris have together. 

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  • I first interviewed Professor Sube Banerjee on my podcast in November 2020, when unbeknown to us, we were about to have our Christmas celebrations ambushed by Covid. Our chat was stimulating, thought-provoking, energetic and creative. It was also full of hope, just like him. In fact, I gave the podcast the title, The Professor of Hope, which many listeners loved. 

    Sube Banerjee led the development of the UK’s first national dementia strategy in 2009. It constituted a huge step towards changing the way the condition is viewed by both Government and public. Over the next decade or so the Professor never lost his enthusiasm and ability to inspire, whether as Professor of Dementia and Associate Dean at Brighton and Sussex medical school or, latterly, as Executive Dean of Plymouth University’s cross-disciplinary health faculty.  

    Back in 2020 we spoke about two of his projects: The first, Time for Dementia, is a complementary training programme for healthcare students of any sort who enter the world of people with dementia and their families by visiting them, in pairs, every term. The second, Radio Me, takes the familiar technology of radio and, using advanced technology, tailors it to the needs of those living with dementia so that it can play calming, personalised music at appropriate times or remind individuals to take their medicine. Both initiatives were paused during Covid and the Professor and I promised to catch up on them again when life was back to normal. Inevitably, in the intervening period this highly respected clinician and academic (who has a veritable alphabet soup of letters after his name) has come up with a new venture.  

    DETERMIND considers the inequalities in dementia care thrown up by factors such as ethnicity, sexuality and socioeconomic status. It also examines the impact of earlier rather than later diagnosis. Professor Banerjee strongly believes that it is better to know your diagnosis than not to know so that you can plan for the future. “Knowledge is power”, he says.

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  • Sage House is a dementia hub in Tangmere, West Sussex. Said to be the first of its kind in the UK, the hub is located in a light, airy building of dementia-friendly coloured zones, wide passageways, Daisy’s café and numerous meeting rooms for everything from legal advice on drawing up wills and powers of attorney to hairdressing, from Citizens Advice Bureau sessions and dementia assessment clinics to Reiki.  

    The hub provides a one-stop shop to give all the various services that someone diagnosed with dementia and his or her family might need. Crucially, they will also be allocated one person to help them navigate their way around the mind-boggling systems and choices they will now confront. 

    Chief executive Sally Tabbner is passionate about what she does. She was recruited even before Sage House officially opened in 2018 and has taken her team from a staff of three to 36 employees and 66 volunteers who between them over the past 12 months have provided direct support to over seventeen hundred people affected by dementia. 

    So successful has the hub proved that Chichester University is currently evaluating the model to see if it might be rolled out across the UK. 

    Volunteer Ronnie Patmore, whose late wife Dolly used the hub until she died during the first Covid lockdown in 2020, initially felt guilty and doubtful about leaving his wife in the care of others. However, ably supported by Jackie, a dedicated, personal Wayfinder, Ronnie soon realised that the hub and its resources were just what the couple needed. And since Dolly died, he’s volunteered at Sage House, helping in the café and, in his inimitable way, cheering up the customers. 

    “I find myself chatting to people starting out on the same journey as I have had,” says Ronnie. “I know what it’s like and I hope that if I speak to them I might brighten their day”.

    Find out more about Sage House at www. www.dementiasupport.org.uk/sage-house

    The book Pippa mentioned, by Peter Berry & Deb Bunt, is called Slow Puncture: Living Well With Dementia, and is available from Amazon. 

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  • When Dame Barbara Windsor died in the dark Covid days of December 2020 the nation mourned the loss of not just an immensely talented and likeable actress, but a friend. We felt we knew this pocket dynamo, through her countless appearances, from her early days in the Carry On films to her later role as Peggy Mitchell in Eastenders, which she played for 20 years. 

    We didn’t really know her of course, not the real Babs. But one man did. Scott Mitchell was 26 years younger than the love of his life. They met when he was 29 and she was 55 and married, and predictably, many thought the relationship wouldn’t last. How wrong they were. The couple were married for 27 tempestuous years during which they weathered her many bouts of ill health, his drinking, her fame and its relentless intrusion into their lives. At different times, they both encountered the black dog of depression. Yet despite it all their bond proved unbreakable and, when Barbara was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014, Scott was there by her side. Four years later they went public with Barbara’s condition. 

    This was hugely important. When entertainment royalty such as Barbara Windsor speak out it makes headlines, generates discussion, and raises awareness in a unique and powerful way. In less than 48 hours the subject of dementia was projected into everyone’s lives.  Donations to the Alzheimer’s Society increased 30 per cent.  In 2019, Scott, a former alcoholic, ran the Dementia Revolution Marathon: it was to become the most successful London marathon partnership of all time, raising over 4 million pounds.  

    It is only now, having read Scott Mitchell’s account of his phenomenal life with this legendary actress, that I understand the depth and complexity of their love for each other and the huge courage it took them to tell the world their very personal news.  

    Their handling of Barbara’s dementia was perhaps the most poignant example of the way in which their personal and public personas were inextricably linked. Just a few months after taking the painful decision to move his wife into a care home – “My Fear Has Become A Reality” screamed the Sun headline – Scott was told that Barbara was now receiving palliative care.

    When her death was announced it led all the news bulletins, Good Morning Britain dedicated a whole programme to her, the then Prince, now King, Charles publicly announced his sadness, along with the then Prime Minister, other politicians, Royalty, and hosts of celebrities, many of whom were close friends of the couple. Barbara Windsor’s illuminated name was circulated round the top of the Post Office and Blackpool Towers, and Alzheimer’s Research UK set up a condolence page that raised £130,000 within the month. 

    This summer Boris Johnson launched a national mission to tackle dementia and pledged to double research funding into the condition to 160 million pounds a year by 2024.   The mission is named the Dame Barbara Windsor Dementia Mission. What a remarkable tribute, and legacy. Everyone of us who has been, is or will be touched by dementia owes this incredible couple a huge debt of thanks.

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  • When I last interviewed today’s guest for this podcast it was the summer of 2020 and we were cautiously emerging from our first lockdown.  Back then, in July 2020, I said that I admired this young mum from Chepstow for her understated determination, her strength of character and her obvious love for her family. Two difficult years on those words are truer than ever. 

    Suzy Webster’s Covid experiences have been an intense, distilled version of many of ours. We’ve all had to adapt, to become used to a new norm all the while knowing that it wasn’t forever. For better or worse, families were thrown together in unusually close proximity. For Suzy, whose parents came to live with her, her husband Andrew and their two young daughters ten years ago, this meant caring, intimately, for her mum Barbara whose dementia is now so advanced that she rarely speaks and cannot walk or look after her personal needs.  It brought two terrible days when they thought they were losing Barbara and open, honest conversations with the teenage girls.

    While continuing to work three days a week for Age Cymru (the Welsh equivalent of Age UK), Suzy, a trained social worker, cared for her mum for over three months before fully handing back this role to formal carers a few weeks ago.  She was also home schooling her girls. She admits it was exhausting – physically, mentally and emotionally. Zoom helped them all. And online yoga gave Suzy breathing space. Recently, since the world’s opened up, she’s started playing netball and launched herself into sea dipping.

    So much has changed since 2020, Suzy says. “But every day is new and life moves on. There are moments of joy most days; sometimes you have to remind yourself to look for them and dwell in them. I hold mum’s hand more now and stroke her hair. The girls tell her about their day and Andy always gives mum her dinner when he comes home from work”.  

    It was very apparent the last time she and I spoke that Suzy’s husband Andy, a hospice chaplain, is a huge support to her. “I couldn’t have done any of this without him,” she told me. “He’s a very special human being”.  

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  • Older people, says geriatrician Dr Lucy Pollock, are interesting. They are also boring, good-humoured, bad-tempered, serene, irritable, amusing, grouchy, selfish, generous, happy-go-lucky and nervy. “Older people are just all of us grown up”. Of course they are – so why can’t we all see that?

    It is in order to open up the conversation around old age, something we all reach if we are lucky enough and yet seem to shy away from, that Somerset-based Lucy has written her book, called – without ducking or diving – The Book About Getting Older, for people who don’t want to talk about it.

    Published last year, it’s received plaudits from reviewers as diverse as the British Geriatrics Society and comedian Sandi Toksvig, who described it as the most important book about the second half of your life you’ll ever read, to the ex-shadow chancellor Ed Balls. The Evening Standard summed it up for me. “Dr Lucy Pollock,” it said, “is a geriatrician, and the kind of person you want to clone”.

    Lucy, who has specialised in the care of those who are frail and elderly for 21 years, says that in the last quarter of a century geriatric medicine has come into its own as more and more doctors realise how important and interesting it is, and it now attracts young medics in their droves. She loves it because it’s complicated, team-based, unbelievably rewarding and involves a lot of cake. “You have to be really nosy to be a good geriatrician” she says.

    Towards the end of this pretty lengthy book – which reads like a dream – and after she’s covered all the knotty issues, from the extravagant cocktail of pills often prescribed for older people to preventing falls, choosing care homes and gently suggesting to an ageing relative that they should give up driving, she looks back over her years as a geriatrician.

    She observes that her patients have been assets with gifts to offer of which she’s been the recipient. She’s been given a look, a letter, a pat on the hand, cherry liqueurs, an email that left her sitting at her desk, tears streaming, a card, a smile, a folded note that contains love as tangible as a pressed flower, secrets… and lesson after lesson in courage.

    You can see now what I mean about her joyous writing. She brings subjects alive with characters who walk off her pages into your life – characters like George and Margaret, Nancy and Clem, Noel and Mark – and all their individual, sometimes uplifting, sometimes heart-breaking, stories teach us things about old age, whether it’s advance care plans, incontinence, near-impossible discussions around resuscitation or the big D, dementia, which she describes as “a word primed with emotion, pinned in the thoughts of many to images of loss, fear, indignity” before going on to explain why this perception is so wrong.

    Lucy Pollock, proud patron of Age UK Somerset, is obviously, very clever, but she’s very funny too, and human and self-aware. She offers her chapters on dementia with, and I quote, “some hesitation and considerable respect” because she hasn’t experienced a diagnosis of dementia or known what it’s like to live in the same house as someone with the condition day in, day out. How wonderfully refreshing is that.

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  • This week I was delighted to welcome, not one, but four Well I Know Now guests. I thought it was important to talk to them all as they each play vital roles in a Folkestone-based company that works with older people and their families to improve their wellbeing.

    Plan with Care, launched in 2018, is the brainchild of Chris Gage, a social entrepreneur with a passion to improve quality in care, and his friend Nathan Harris, a chartered financial planner with over 20 years in his sector. The company’s consultants work alongside the family, friends and – importantly – solicitors of older people (many who live with dementia) helping them to plan their care. Wellbeing consultants take time to understand an individual’s passions and goals, offering each family support and guidance through what is almost always a difficult period. 

    Chris Gage is a strong believer in the importance of creativity in care and says creativity, which should be the norm in every care setting, is often impeded by fear, which creeps in from different angles – from the negative media backdrop, from local authorities and relatives who are understandably anxious about safety, and from the weight of compliance rules. But, says Chris, with real leadership, creativity can provide more, much-needed time. When other people such as police, children, volunteers, are encouraged into care homes a virtuous circle is created: carers have more time and a sense of freedom and confidence grows.

    Nathan Harris grew up in Dover and as a child his grandmother played a big part of his life. When, years later, she developed dementia, this hit him hard. He found it difficult to engage with her and turned to his friend Chris for advice. By now a financial planner with expertise in pensions, investments and tax planning, he saw, too, the burden that his grandmother’s dementia placed on his mother as she struggled to make difficult decisions with little or no guidance.

    Alise Kirtley is someone I first met at a dementia conference several years ago, when I was struck by her thoughtfulness and quiet confidence. Alise, it turns out, is Plan with Care’s lead wellbeing consultant and her credentials are impressive. She has worked with care homes as a culture change manager and practice development consultant, delivered care training, and contributed to the Mental Health Foundation’s dementia truth inquiry. She holds a Masters in ethical business development in dementia care and is qualified in various aspects of advanced dementia care.

    But more than this, she has an ethos of care that runs through her, from her physical demeanour to the haunting songs she writes and performs with her band The Bearing. A classically trained pianist and composer, Alise began her musical journey aged six, but asked, when she was 11, whether she wanted to be a musician she wrote, “I will always love music but I want to do something that will help people”. Now she sometimes combines the two, bringing songs into her caring role. 

    I was introduced to my fourth guest through her wonderful blogs. Carrie Ioakim, a qualified counsellor with many years of experience working for charities, is an assistant wellbeing consultant and a creative companion at Plan with Care. Growing up in Kent, she was very close to her grandmother who developed dementia and lived with Carrie and her family until she moved into a care home after a series of falls.

    It was at the care home that Carrie met a carer who made it her business to get to know them all, leafing through family albums and listening to all their stories. Carrie says that though her grandma was never the easiest of ladies, this wonderful carer handled her with patience and grace, loving her grandma for the fight she still had. “This had a real impact on me and I remember thinking at the time that this must be the most amazing job ever,” Carrie told me.

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  • Matthew Seager’s play, In Other Words, distils dementia – what it is to have it, what it is to watch someone you love being lost to it – into just 75 minutes, pulling its audience into the emotional turmoil that unfailingly accompanies this cruel condition. 

    Matthew told me that he’d been inspired to write it after visiting a dementia care home during his drama studies at Leeds university. For one module, students could decide which aspects of the performative process they wanted to focus on: Matt chose care homes and applied theatre.

    He visited Berkeley Court care home and researched which of the senses triggered the most powerful reactions and memories in people living with dementia. Each sensory stimulation session was bookended with music that might mean something to the residents; Matt witnessed seemingly lost individuals who could no longer speak stand up and sing every word of songs connecting them to their early life.

    The 21-year-old Matthew was blown away by what he’d seen and vowed one day to use his experiences creatively – while continuing his training at the prestigious Royal Conservatoire of Scotland he began working on In Other Words.  

    It debuted in 2017 at Islington’s Hope Theatre and I found it very moving to watch. With virtually no props and a scattering of evocative songs the couple switch between life before and life after, Arthur’s condition takes hold. The play powerfully conveys the ups and downs, the flaming rows and never-ending confusion and grief of a married couple experiencing dementia together. 

    The saving grace is their song, Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon, which never loses its magic for Arthur and when things get too much – when, as Arthur puts it, “It feels like I am breaking”, the tune’s familiar phrases and rhythms pull him back from the brink, and reveal the tenderness and love that still exist between him and Jane. 

    I can do no better to sum up the play’s profound impact on its audience than quote from one theatre-goer, who said,

    “Thank you for letting me finally cry over the death of my beautiful nan. She had vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s and I cared for her for two years. After she died, I never cried. I think the pain and loss traumatised me so much. That was until I saw the show tonight. When Arthur was in his advanced stages and the earphones were put in and the music played, that’s when the tears began to flow. It made me feel again. It felt so good to cry. Your play did that to me. It seemed to unlock all the pain in me.  I didn’t know theatre could be so powerful.”.

    The show has been staged in Scotland and Ireland, where it scooped multiple awards in the All Ireland One Act Finals. 

    In the last few years, of course, the pandemic has shut our theatres and halted performances. Two tours of In Other Words had to be cancelled. Undaunted, Matthew translated the play into a film, contacting cinematographers and photography directors he felt would relate to the work.

    Launched online last autumn it immediately garnered a five star review. It is now available to watch on YouTube, where it is being offered as part of the music and dementia charity Playlist for Life’s higher educational e-learning initiative.  

    The rights have been purchased for a French language production opening at the Avignon festival later this year. 

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  • “Change your life with an Open University qualification” boasts the OU website. And this week’s guest, author and dementia campaigner Gina Awad, did exactly that – though actually she changed not just her life but many hundreds, possibly thousands, of lives. For it was through a health and social care degree in 2011, at the age of 41, that she first became interested in dementia.

    Since then she’s gone on to win one of only 12 of the highly competitive places on a training retreat in America for those who work or share their lives with people with dementia. She’s trekked the Great Wall of China, raising £2,500 for Alzheimer’s Research UK, been named Dementia Champion of the Year by the Alzheimer’s Society, created a dementia friendly GP resource guide for Devon, introduced dementia-friendly cinema screenings, collaborated with award-winning cartoonist Tony Husband to produce two “Shining a Light on Dementia” calendars, been recognised as one of the one hundred most influential women in Exeter and, in 2018, received a British Empire Medal for voluntary services for people living with dementia in Devon.  

    She also presents a radio show focussed on living better with dementia. But by far her biggest achievement, Gina says, is launching Exeter’s Dementia Action Alliance. 

    Later this year, in June, Gina’s book, “United: Caring For Our Loved Ones Living With Dementia”, once again written in collaboration with the cartoonist Tony Husband, will be published.  

    What is perhaps even more extraordinary is that Gina’s passion and drive to improve life for those with dementia comes not from direct personal experience, but rather from childhood memories of her and sister visiting care homes with their grandmother, who encouraged residents to engage in the creative arts.

    “What really struck me then, over 40 years ago, was not the residents who were involved with the activities but those who weren’t. I felt a myriad of emotions to which, at the time, I didn’t connect. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realised the impact those residents had had on me. As a little girl I’d observed and identified with their sense of disconnectedness, fear and vulnerability – and their isolation and loneliness never left me”. 

    Now, everything Gina does is about making a difference for those with dementia and their families. “I want people to feel included and understood, she says, and to be treated with compassion so that they can live a meaningful life”. 

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  • Ian Kremer has worked for over 25 years on his country’s dementia policies. A member of both the Virginia State Bar and the American Bar Association, he was a director of the Alzheimer’s Association focussing on state and local policy in Virginia, Maryland and the district of Columbia for 16 years before moving to head up the Washington DC-based Lead Coalition in 2012 – LEAD, L-E-A-D, stands for Leaders Engaged on Alzheimer’s Disease. 

    LEAD is a national coalition of over 200 member and allied organisations – from charities, pharmaceutical companies, neurological societies, academic and research institutes, healthcare and homecare providers – all of whom work to raise awareness of dementia and accelerate progress in three fields – the first, care and support; the second, detection and diagnosis and the third, research into prevention, treatment and cure. 

    Ian, who has been LEAD’s executive director for the past ten years, sees his biggest achievement in that time as (mostly) – his qualification – unifying the community of dementia advocates which was very fractured when he joined the coalition.  Now, he says, though they don’t agree on everything, the community agrees and collaborates on most and, importantly, it has productive and open lines of communication even when there are disagreements. 

    This strength in unity has brought some great results, such as a whopping 700pc increase in dementia research funding at America’s medical research agency and what Ian describes as a substantial expansion of the public health approach to dementia.

    I also explore with Ian the similarities and possible differences that exist between our two countries in the way we view and treat those with dementia and their families and carers. We discuss the extent to which stigma still lingers over the condition in America, as it does here, and whether the level of awareness and knowledge of dementia has increased in the US.

    For as long as he can remember Ian says he’s lived his life by two maxims: Tikkun Olam, which roughly translated from the Hebrew means to “repair the world” and Martin Luther King Junior’s words, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Which is something we all need to hear right now. 

    His CV reveals that he is true to his beliefs. As well as his national role at the LEAD Coalition he holds over a dozen volunteer posts in health, dementia and care. He participates in several national steering committees, including a research summit on care and support for those with dementia and their carers, and he’s a member of the executive committee for dementia friendly America.

    “For me”, Ian told me, “working with and for people who have dementia is just one way I can contribute towards repairing the world and helping to accelerate the bending of the moral arc towards justice”.

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  • Niamh Condon has long believed that food is far more than fuel for the body. Coming from a large Irish family, she’s always loved to cook and has known from a young age that sitting down for a meal together brings people close, it connects them and warms them, it comforts them, it nurtures relationships and binds societies.

    Having worked in the catering industry for over 20 years, in 2014 Niamh began cooking for older people and encountered the challenges faced by those who find it difficult to swallow (for which the technical term is dysphagia) and whose meals have to be pureed.  

    At a nursing home in West Cork she was asked to blend food separately and serve it up with an ice-cream scoop. She recalls plating up a white scoop, a green scoop and a brown scoop for a woman who understandably thought it was ice-cream, but on eating it found it was hot, savoury and salty – not at all what she expected. The woman threw the plate on the ground and refused to eat it.

    The incident inspired Niamh to get piping. Now she is known for her fabulous pureed creations – from fish and chips to lamb shanks, scones and jam, bacon and cabbage, and scrummy cakes, Niamh’s dishes look and taste like what they are. And funnily enough, once people are given food that looks, tastes and smells as it’s supposed to, they are far more likely to eat it. Hardly rocket science.

    At the end of 2019 Niamh launched her own business, Dining with Dignity, creating appetising, visually appealing pureed food using special moulds provided by an Australian company and training other care home cooks homes to do the same. Her timing was, to put it mildly, unfortunate. Just around the corner, as we all know now (to coin a phrase), lurked Covid; and in the early spring of 2020 Ireland, along with the rest of the world, went into lockdown. Not before the Irish Times identified Niamh as one of their 50 People to Watch in 2020.

    And there have been golden moments over the past two frightening years, one of which involves a truly fabulous Golden Anniversary chocolate cake that Niamh created for Denis McCarthy and his wife Ann, who lives in a nursing home. Warning: get your tissues ready, it’s a tear-jerker of a story.

    Now that, hopefully, we’re beginning to get back to normal, Niamh is ramping up her business again. Though to Niamh, it’s far more than a business. She is passionate about exposing the struggles, stigma and exclusion faced by those with swallowing difficulties. Imagine going into a room, she tells me, where everyone is split into two groups. One group is offered tea, coffee, biscuits and made to feel welcome, the second group is simply ignored – that’s what it’s like when you can’t swallow. You feel isolated.

    “I set out to try and help as many chefs cooking for people with dysphagia as I could,” says Niamh. “I wanted to help those sitting around the table facing three scoops on a plate”. 

    Niamh’s cooking, her understanding and preparation of food, hold many valuable messages – not just about people with swallowing difficulties or even the ethos of care homes and the havoc Covid wreaked as it split families apart – but about what eating and sharing meals mean to us all, what they bring to us. There’s an almost philosophical aspect to what Niamh does that speaks to the way we live our lives. 

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