Dementia is as much of a taboo as cancer was in the 1960s, according to the Health Secretary. One in three adults will develop the illness but we ‘just don’t like talking about it’, Jeremy Hunt said yesterday. He admitted that the way society deals with dementia is ‘shockingly bad’, adding: ‘We need to change attitudes.’ It came as Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans for a £2.4million project to train a million volunteers to spot the illness and care for patients.
About 800,000 Britons are being treated for dementia.
Another 400,000 are thought to suffer from it but have not been diagnosed.
Mr Hunt said one reason diagnosis rates are so low is people ‘don’t want to come forward’ to see their GP.
He added: ‘The way we deal with it is as a society is shockingly bad. We need to sort out what we do inside the NHS as there’s some big work we are doing on that front. And we need to improve research.
‘Dementia is a bit of a taboo. It’s a bit like cancer in the 1960s where people don’t like to talk about it.’
He said: ‘The NHS is brilliant in so many ways, but I think even inside the NHS people realise we have to do a lot better.
‘Too many people with dementia feel cut off, lonely and fearful without the support and understanding they need.
‘We need to build a society where people can live well with dementia, enjoying the best possible quality of life for as long as possible. I want Britain to be one of the best places to be for dementia care.’
Pledging to make the issue a ‘personal priority’, David Cameron unveiled a package of initiatives, saying urgent action is needed to raise the ‘shockingly low’ awareness of the condition and improve diagnosis rates.
One million ‘dementia friends’ are to be trained to spot the symptoms of the condition and given advice on how to provide practical help to Britain’s estimated 700,000 sufferers.
Mr Cameron told ITV1’s This Morning: ‘Six months ago, I set up this challenge to say we’ve got to do better as a country in three vital regards.
‘First is how do we treat people with dementia in the health service, in care homes? In some cases it’s brilliant, in many cases it’s not good enough, and remember one in four hospital beds are occupied by someone with dementia.
‘What more can we do in society to show understanding for people with dementia and make sure we treat them properly?
‘Third, but I think almost the most vital, is putting more money into dementia research.
‘I think there a lot of people out there who think dementia is just part of ageing, part of getting old. It isn’t. It’s a disease of the brain. We’ve got about 670,000 people with dementia, but tragically only 40 per cent – less than half – know they’ve got it.
‘We are not diagnosing it fast enough, we are not treating it fast enough. But there’s a really big cultural change we need to make. We know cancer is a killer that we want to get on top of.
‘We need to think of dementia in the same way. This is a disease that we need to try and tackle with all our brains and brilliant scientists.’
Mr Cameron has described Dementia Friends as ‘a great initiative’ which would make Britain ‘a country that’s more friendly and more understanding’ to people with the illness.
Hailing the extra £10 million for dementia research, the PM added: “We can do amazing things in our world. We can crack killer diseases. We can save lives on the other side of the world. We should be doing more here at home on this subject.
‘I think there are signs that if you diagnose it earlier there are better chances of drugs working, and the tragedy at the moment is that, with almost three quarters of a million people with dementia, less than half of those have actually been diagnosed.
Get to them faster, research the drugs, and let’s try and crack this disease, which tragically is going to affect one million people soon in our country.’
‘Through the Dementia Friends project we will for the first time make sure a million people know how to spot those tell-tale signs and provide support.’
The Dementia Friends initiative, which will receive £2.4 million funding over the next three years, is based on a scheme in japan where three million members of the public have been recruited to help dementia sufferers.
It will be led by the Alzheimer’s Society, which is recruiting up to 8,000 volunteers to help train members of the public. Members of the public will then be offered one-hour training sessions in community centres, church halls and workplaces designed to help them understand the impact of the disease and offer them practical ways to help sufferers.
In one exercise they will be asked to write down all the steps involved in making a cup of tea, in order to demonstrate how complicated even simple tasks can be.
Those taking part will be encouraged to wear a specially-designed badge, based on a forget-me-not, identifying them as a Dementia Friend.
They will also be encouraged to help sufferers they know or who they see struggling to cope with everyday tasks. Dementia sufferers will be told to look out for people wearing the badges if they need help.
Some 17,000 bus drivers at the transport giant First Group will be among the first to take part in the scheme.
Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, said: ‘Day to day tasks such as going to the shop or catching a bus can become increasingly difficult for people with dementia. Without a helping hand, this can mean people are left feeling isolated, unable to be part of their community and in some cases even unable to continue living at home.
‘We want to rally a million people behind the cause of helping make a better life for people with dementia.
‘I am confident we will not only meet this target but beat it.’
Mr Cameron will also announce that the Government is providing almost £10 million for dementia research to study brain scans of people in middle age, and £50 million to make wards and care homes more comfortable for people with dementia.
He also announced other initiatives to boost early diagnosis and help the public to better understand the condition which is forecast to affect one in three people aged over 65. At present just 42 per cent of people with the condition are ever diagnosed.
GPs are being given new guidance on the need to refer people displaying symptoms of the condition for specialist diagnosis