Comedians Jo Brand and Meera Syal have become two of England’s first ‘dementia friends’, in an initiative launched by the Alzheimer’s Society. And the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has pledged to become one too. 

The scheme aims to reach one million people in England by 2015 with free information sessions exploring what it is like to live with the condition.

The £2.4m project is supported by the government and funded by the department of health and cabinet office.

The Alzheimer’s Society says around 800,000 people in the UK have a form of dementia.

And one in three people over the age of 65 will go on to develop the condition.

The organisation wants the volunteer-led sessions, taking place in workplaces and town halls across the country, to “change the way the nation thinks, talks and acts”.

The Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans for the initiative in November last year, saying awareness of the condition was “shockingly low”.

‘Bingo’Meera Syal and Jo Brand joined one of the first groups, playing “dementia fact bingo” and testing their memory of everyday objects, such as the features on a one-penny piece.

Most of the participants could correctly recall only two features on the coin.

Laura Robinson, who led the session, said the exercises were designed to help people understand more about dementia and experience what it feels like to forget the everyday things we often take for granted.

Meera Syal was spurred on to become a dementia friend after a relative developed the condition.

She said: “One of my close family members has dementia and many of my friends have parents and grandparents living with the condition. I wanted to be a dementia friend so I could start to think about how I can help in my community.

“I am particularly keen to raise awareness of dementia in the Asian community, indeed in all communities where people may not know what support is available.”

Jo Brand said her previous professional experience of dementia as a psychiatric nurse made her realise how isolating the condition can be.

She said: “The dementia friends information session I took part in gave a real insight into what everyday life is like for someone with dementia.

“Being a dementia friend is about being that little bit more aware because it’s the small things that make a big difference.”

During the launch of the project, Daphne Wallace, 72, and a former psychiatrist who was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2005, said:

“Most people’s reaction to my dementia is very dismissive.

“Better public understanding of the condition will make a huge difference.

“It will make England that bit nicer a place to live, not just for people with dementia and the families who are affected, but for everyone.”

Jeremy Hunt the Health Secretary said: “I have personally pledged to make dementia a priority, and have committed to becoming a dementia friend.

“Whilst this is just one the ways we can make life better for people with this terrible condition, I would encourage the nation in joining me and doing the same.”

The prime minister has already promised to double the research budget for the disease to £66m by 2015.

By Smitha Mundasad

BBC News