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Lots of small gains will see our shared vision for living better with dementia shine through

When I asked Charmaine Hardy (@charbhardy) if she would mind if I could dedicate my next book, ‘Living better with dementia’ to her, I was actually petrified.

Obviously, Charmaine had every right to say ‘no’. You see, I met Charmaine through Beth on Twitter, and I saw the three letters ‘PPA’ in Charmaine’s Twitter profile. Charmaine’s Twitter timeline is simply buzzing with activity. It’s hard not to fall in love with Charmaine’s focused devotion everywhere, nor with how much she adores her family. This passion, despite daily Charmaine working extremely hard, itself generates energy. People are attracted to Charmaine, as she never complains however tough times get. She thinks of ways to go forwards, not backwards, even when she had trouble with her roses recently. She basically creates a lot of good energy for all of us. As Charmaine’s Twitter profile clearly states, “I’m a carer to a husband with PPA dementia.”

Things are not right with the external world though. We have millions of family unpaid caregivers rushing around all the time, trying to do their best. Seeing these relationships in action, as indeed Rachel Niblock and Louise Langham must do at the Dementia Carers’ Call to Action (@DAACarers), must be a fascinating experience. There’s a real sense of shared purpose, often sadly against the “system”.

Contrary to popular opinion, perhaps, I have a strong respect for the hierarchy I find myself in. I have asked Prof Alistair Burns (@ABurns1907), a very senior academic in old age psychiatry, to write one of my Forewords. He also happens to be England’s lead for dementia, but I hope to produce my book as a work of balanced scholarship, which does not tread on any policy toes.

But underlying my book is a highly energised social network (@legalaware), based on my 14000 followers on Twitter. My timeline is curation of knowledge in action, in real time as my #tweep community actively share knowledge on a second-by-second basis. There’s a real change of us breaking down the barriers, and changing things for the better. Sure, some things of course don’t go to plan, but with innovation you’re allowed to crack a few eggs to make an omelette. I have enormous pleasure in that in this network people on the whole feel connected and with this power might produce a big change for the better.

My new book is indeed called ‘Living better with dementia: champions challenging the boundaries‘ – and I feel Kate Swaffer (@KateSwaffer) and Chris Roberts (@mason4233) are doing just that. They continually explain, reasonably and pleasantly, how the system could be much improved from their perspectives of living well with dementia, such that we could end up with a ‘level playing field’. And of course the fact we know what each is up to, for example pub quizzes or plane flights, means that we end up being incredibly proud even if we have the smallest of wins.

My proposed contents of this book are as follows: here.

I am not going to write a single-silo book on living better with dementia, however much the medics would like that.

For many of us in the network, dementia is not a ‘day job’. This shared vision is not about creating havoc. It’s simply that we wish the days of the giving the diagnosis of dementia as ‘It’s bad news. it’s dementia. See you in six months’, as outnumbered. That’s as far as the destruction goes. We want to work with people, many of whom I used to know quite well a decade ago, who felt it was ‘job done’ when you diagnosed successfully one of the dementias from seeing the army of test results. I would like the medics and other professionals not to kill themselves over our urge for change, and work with us who believe in what we’re doing too.

Whenever I chat with Kate and Chris, often with a GPS tracker myself in the form of Facebook chat, I am struck by their strong sense of equity, fairness and justice. And I get this from Charmaine too. The issue for us is not wholly and solely focused on how a particular drug might revolutionise someone’s life with dementia. The call for action is to acknowledge friends and families need full help too, and that people living with dementia wish to get the best out of what they can do (rather than what they cannot do) being content with themselves and their environment. We’re looking at different things, but I feel it’s the right time to explain clearly the compelling message we believe in now.

These values of course take us to an emotional place, but one which leads us to want to do something about it. For me, it’s a big project writing a massive book on the various contemporary policy strands, but one where I’ve had much encouragement from various close friends. For me, the National Health Service kept me alive in a six week coma, taught me how to walk and talk again, when I contracted meningitis in 2007. As I am physically disabled, and as my own Ph.D. was discovering an innovative way of diagnosing a type of frontotemporal dementia at Cambridge in the late 1990s, I have a strong sense of wishing to support people living with dementia; especially since, I suspect, many of my friends living well with dementia will have experienced stigma and discrimination at some time in their lives.

I understand why medics of all ranks will find it easier to deal with what they are used to – the prescription pad – in the context of dementia. But I do also know that many professionals, despite some politicians and some of the public press, are excellent at communicating with people, so will want to improve the quality of lives of people who’ve received a diagnosis. We need to listen and understand their needs, and build a new system – including the service and research – around them. I personally ‘wouldn’t start from here’, but this sadly can be said for much for my life. Every tweet on dementia is a small but important gain for me in the meantime. Each and every one of us have to think, ultimately, what we’ve tried to do successfully with our lives.

Suggested reading

Read anything you can by @HelenBevan, the Chief Transformation Officer for the NHS.

Her work will put this blogpost in the context of NHS ‘change’.

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