There’s every chance that you will have had personal contact with someone suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease or some form of dementia.
With, happily, many people enjoying longer lives, these conditions have become much more common, although they are not always restricted to older people of course.
Both my dad and my wife’s mum went through it in their final years, and it is quite heart-breaking to see it affect someone close to you.
As you may know, there’s much more to it than the memory failures which are most noticeable – it affects the whole personality as well as physical health.
Like many people affected, my dad’s memory would come and go and he would often remember events of years back much more clearly than something which happened earlier in the day. He would forget that I’d been to see him in the morning, and then chatted about something he was doing as a young married man – flipping his mental clock back decades.
Understanding and research into Alzheimer’s is still at a low level, compared to many high profile diseases and conditions, but things are getting better.
The Alzheimer’s Society, who do lots of superb work in this area, have a simple mission statement, looking forward to “a world without dementia” and it’s a fervent hope that it’s a possibility.
I’ve been lucky enough to see some ground-breaking work just up the road at Sunderland Royal Hospital which has attracted attention from a very wide area.
The staff on the dementia ward were acutely aware that being in that environment, despite very high levels of care, could be quite dispiriting and lead to a kind of life stagnation.
They have set up the new Alexandra Unit which has had a spectacular effect.
The best way to describe it is being like a daytime social club where patients can take time off from the ward and have their minds and memories stretched.
The staff there are magnificent and you can tell that they all see it as much more than a job – it’s a passion.
They concentrate on what interests people and work hard on bringing their personal histories back to life.
Many of the male patients worked in mining, so there’s a lot of memorabilia around – as well as souvenirs and visitors from Sunderland Football Club too.
The workings of the human brain are still something of an enigma, even to the specialists, but it’s fascinating to see how some areas of memory can be sharp even when there’s a deterioration elsewhere.
It’s already been shown that music has some useful applications, and starting off a song from a patient’s youth can often produce a word-perfect rendition of a long and complicated lyric.
I’ve noticed too that many patients can remember a favourite gag from beginning to punch line, and perhaps laughter is the best medicine.
I found with my dad that it wasn’t always about being over serious – enjoying a good laugh is a gift that none of us want to lose.
It’s in all of our interests to get research and great practice as at Sunderland right at the top of the agenda and hope that the vision of that world without dementia becomes a reality.