Blackpool is at the centre of a dementia crisis, with more people in the town suffering from the disease than anywhere else in the whole of Lancashire
Ask Keith Lowbridge about his days in the Army, or his time working for the ambulance service, and he will regale you with a story.
Memory loss isn’t as taboo a subject as it used to be and there does need to be more understanding around it
An 80-year-old who seems a bright as a button when you sit with him for a brew and a natter, loves talking about years gone by.
“It was so different in the days when I was growing up,” he smiles.
“We didn’t have a television when I was a lad, and when we did eventually get one it was 12 inches and wasn’t colour.
“There was no such thing as disposable nappies. And it wasn’t like it is now where you can put the wash on at the press of a button – you used to see the mums doing their washing with the old buckets.”
He happily chats away, eyes ablaze as he recalls his childhood.
The sad thing is ask him what he had for lunch, what he did yesterday, what he’s just watched on television or who rang to speak to him on the phone five minutes ago, and he can’t remember.
It is something the majority of us take for granted: remembering things.
But for some – more and more of the population – this simple act is beyond them.
Forgetfulness is one of the first signs of dementia, a condition which affects 800,000 people in Britain today.
There are more than 2,000 people with the condition in Blackpool alone – the highest number anywhere in Lancashire.
Financially it has a crippling effect on the NHS.
But forget that, it’s the impact on the sufferers themselves and, especially, the people around them that is the real issue.
“It has been coming on for quite a while I think,” says Keith, 80. “At first I thought I was losing my mind. But it’s not gone completely – it comes and goes.
“Sometimes someone can phone and I’ll speak to them, put the phone down and not be able to remember who it was or why they called.
“Other times I’ll be watching television and when the programme has finished I won’t know what I’ve just watched.
“Someone could ask what I had for dinner and I don’t know, I just forget.”
In Keith’s case, the person most affected is his partner Jean.
She is 74 and with enough problems of her own to worry about, but spends the majority of her time preoccupied by Keith, checking he is OK and not getting too down.
“He knows he’s forgetful and he doesn’t like it, so I have to do things for the two of us now instead of just for myself, she says.
“Often he goes into himself and just sits there and that isn’t him. He is very bright man, always was, and so he gets a little shirty when you have to remind him to do things.”
It is the little, everyday things that are becoming too much for Keith.
“He forgets to shave and comes downstairs with his collar up and looking dishevelled as if nobody cares about him,” adds Jean, as she speaks at the couple’s home in Forest Drive, Lytham.
“They might sounds little things but they add up and it bothers him.
“He used to be always as bright as a button and laughing and joking, but now, when I have to remind him to do something so many times, he can get a bit ratty… but it is totally understandable as he is simply frustrated.”
Keith has had treatment at Clifton Hospital, a mile or so away in Lytham. But although the wellbeing and quality of life for people with dementia has greatly improved in recent years, there is no cure, no way to reverse the effects.
“I do worry about how far it’s going to go,” says Jean.
“I always like to be two steps ahead, but as I used to be a nurse and have worked with these kinds of patients, I know it can go from being quite mild to a lot worse.”
Jean, like so many living with or caring for dementia sufferers, just has to do the best she can.
She believes the key is routine. “Keith and I like to play cards and dominos and do word searches to keep his mind active, and we spend a lot of time looking at old photographs – I think that helps,” she says.
“Sometimes Keith will go into himself a bit more than usual and I will ask what he’s thinking about. He’ll say ‘I’m just a bit down today’.
“When that happens we usually start looking at some old photographs and talk about our next holiday, and that seems to cheer him up.”
The couple are supporters of the Blue Skies Hospital Fund’s Peace of Mind Appeal, which aims to raise £30,000 to enhance care for patients with dementia.
It will help pay for a memory corridor – similar to that at Blackpool Victoria Hospital – at Clifton Hospital and in Fleetwood, and for new colour co-ordinated furniture to help patients with memory problems navigate their way around.
Jean hopes the appeal would help more people understand the problems around memory loss.
She said: “Memory loss isn’t as taboo a subject as it used to be and there does need to be more understanding around it.
“There are going to be more and more people starting to be forgetful as the years go on. This scheme needs all the money and support it can get and people need to get behind it.”
Wise words, for this is a condition that could affect any of us. And then it’s you and I that will need help.
*If you would like to fund-raise for Peace of Mind or donate money to the appeal, please contact the Blue Skies fund-raising office on (01253) 957904.
What is dementia?
• Dementia is caused when the brain is damaged by diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease or a series of strokes.
• Each person is unique and will experience dementia in their own way, but all sufferers will have cognitive symptoms (problems with thinking or memory).
• Dementia affects day-to-day memory, concentrating and panning, language (finding the right word for something), visual skills (judging distances) and orientation (losing track of the day or becoming confused about where they are).
• It is predicted there will be around 850,000 men and women in the UK with dementia in 2015. It mainly affects people over the age of 65 (one in 14 people in this age group have dementia), and the likelihood of developing dementiaincreases significantly with age.
• However, it can affect younger people - there are more than 40,000 people in the UK under 65 with dementia.
• Diagnosis is based on a combination of an individual’s history, a series of mental ability tests and a scan of the brain.
• Although the condition is incurable, there are drugs that can help to improve the symptoms and which may stop them progressing for a while.
• Becoming a bit more forgetful does not necessarily mean that you have dementia.
• Anyone who is worried that their memory is getting noticeably worse is advised to contact a GP.
‘We go out and talk to people’
Not many people can say they genuinely do a good thing on a daily basis. Lindsay Harakis can.
She works as a dementia advisor for Empowerment, a Bispham-based charity which offer a range of services for people throughout the town.
Help in dealing with dementia is one of them – and in a town where the condition rates seem to be increasing at a faster rate than elsewhere, Lindsay says the charity’s work is vital.
“We go out to people, talk to them and let them know what services are available,” she said.
“The problem is that there’s still a big stigma with saying you’ve got dementia. People don’t always know how to approach those with the condition or talk to the, - they’ve got an image in their head of how a person with dementia will be when in truth they are just ordinary people. ”
The charity, which is commissioned by Blackpool Council, has been going for three years and has become an important service in Blackpool.
For more information about Empowerment and the help it can offer, go to www.empowermentcharity.org.uk or call (01253) 477959.
What is happening this week?
Blackpool will turn the spotlight on dementia by hosting two events during Dementia Awareness Week.
The first, the launch of the Blackpool Dementia Action Alliance, will take place tomorrow at 10am at St John’s Church.
The brainchild of Blackpool Fairness Commission, the Alliance will bring together organisations from across the town, helping them to work together to improve the lives of people living with dementia and their carers.
Later in the week, on Friday, between 11am and 4pm, people with dementia and their carers are being invited to come along to Blackpool Tower for a special event, “Dancing with Dementia”.
The concept, which was launched last year with special appearances by Strictly Come Dancing stars Robin Windsor and Kristina Rihanoff, sees people with dementia and their carers brought together in the spectacular surroundings of Blackpool Tower Ballroom.
They will then enjoy an afternoon of ballroom dancing, music and a host of dementia-friendly activities.
Information will also be available on the day about dementia services and support as well as details on how to become part of the official “Dementia Friends” campaign.
“By hosting events like these we want to not only reach out to carers and people with dementia to discuss how to improve their lives but also to the community more widely to discuss how best to approach this growing problem and what we can do to make things better,“ said Dr Arif Rajpura, Blackpool Council’s Director of Public Health and Chairman of Blackpool Fairness Commission.
For more information about events call (01253) 476363.