Oscar-nominated actress Carey Mulligan has witnessed the effects of dementia on a close family member. While there is no cure for the illness, here she explains how a better understanding will help remove the stigma that still surrounds it.
The Christmas period is undoubtedly a time many of us look forward to spending with family and friends and that’s no different for me. My beloved grandmother “Nans” turned 91 a couple of days before Christmas and my family and many of Nans’ friends – laden with copious amounts of cake – went down to Wales to see her and celebrate.
Nans and I have always been extremely close and she is the single most influential person in my life aside from my parents. But a lot has changed in our relationship in the last 12 years. Nans was diagnosed with dementia in 2004 and from that moment our lives changed significantly.
But on days like Friday, when we all come together and celebrate her life with those who love her the most, there are still moments of the purest magic.
Dementia is an urgent health crisis that we can no longer ignore. Some 850,000 people in the UK have the condition and more than 47 million people globally live with it.
Its growing prevalence has improved how we, as a society, view dementia. But there is still a long way to go and the stigma of dementia remains rife.
Too many common myths and misconceptions about dementia still exist. Time and again I hear reference to it as just being a natural part of ageing. And, unfortunately, it is often the butt of distasteful jokes.
But dementia is a disease of the brain and it requires understanding, care and support.
The first step in changing people’s understanding of dementia and improving the lives of those who have the condition involves educating people not just on our doorstep, but across the world.
Schemes that set out to change perceptions are doing fantastic work already. The Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Friends is a good example. It has 1.7 million people signed up to take action and change the way people think, act and talk about dementia. Through information sessions participants are asked to think about what living with dementia might be like, practically and emotionally, and are encouraged to make changes within their community to make life a bit easier for people living with dementia.
As a global ambassador for the schemes, my aim is to raise awareness and help change global attitudes towards dementia. I recently delivered a Dementia Friends information session to an audience of 50 young people in Los Angeles.
In spite of a few misconceptions about dementia they were really interested to try to understand the disease in a real way. Many of them used words like “crazy”, “loony” etc when I first asked them what words came to mind when we thought about dementia. But by the end of the session there was a room of young people inspired to do more for those in their communities living with dementia. A young person growing up with an understanding of the illness is one of the most crucial elements of changing how it is viewed and building a dementia-friendly generation.
Like the hundreds of thousands of people living with dementia and their loved ones, I have seen first-hand the challenges the illness brings. I understand what a vital role society – individuals and entire communities – has in supporting people with dementia so they can feel included and stay connected. Small, easy changes we can make within our community can make such a huge difference. When the police, staff in supermarkets and doctors surgeries and train stations all have an awareness of how dementia can affect an individual they are much better equipped to be helpful when help is needed. Because life doesn’t have to end with a dementia diagnosis.
Image: Carey Mulligan cuts the ribbon at the start of the Alzheimer’s Society’s Memory Walk in Swansea, Wales