Dementia trashes old age, and breaks the hearts of those who watch the people they used to know slip away. It is a year since the Prime Minister launched the Dementia Challenge, which seeks to make the UK a leader in research into the degenerative brain disesases of which Alzheimer’s is the best known. Already close to a million people in the UK have dementia.
That means it is potentially big business. This weekend sees the UK’s first Alzheimer’s Show, effectively a trade fair at the Royal Horticultural Halls in London. “Sixty-five per cent of people in the country will know someone with dementia,” said the event’s organiser Nigel Ward. “The show is for carers, members of the public and professionals working with dementia patients.”
Speakers will share stories of their lives changing as a result of Alzheimer’s. Seemingly every member of the paying public is here because they have the same story. “My dad was diagnosed last year,” said Joan Smith, from Beckton. “He’s OK now, but we know, sadly, that he will only get worse. I came because I wanted to know more about what’s out there for him. There’s only so much googling you can do.”
Some of the exhibits are at the same time heartbreaking and inspiring. Popular are telephone attachments that block nuisance phone calls. Elsewhere companies offer legal advice on the complicated matters that arise when a person becomes incapable of making decisions about their affairs, particularly financial ones.
One of the most interesting displays is of activity products for dementia made by Active Minds’, set up by 25-year-old Ben Atkinson-Willes. His products are, in the words of his mother Mandy, toys designed for “82-year-olds not two-year-olds”.
Mandy’s father, and Ben’s grandfather, now deceased, developed Alzheimer’s. “He loved doing jigsaw puzzles,” she said. “He would do 500-piece puzzles, then he was doing 200-piece puzzles. But by the time he was doing simple puzzles, they were all designed for two-year-olds. You know, little kids’ cartoons and so on.”
“Looking after my grandfather,” said Ben, “there was nothing for him to do. He was playing with children’s toys, which is incredibly patronising.”
Another of his products is “aqua paint”: outlines of birds and trees on white paper, which when dabbed with water on a brush reveal a colourful picture hidden beneath. It is toddler’s stuff, no question, but stimulating.
Another company, AutoPharma, develops internet-enabled medication dispensers that eject pouches containing the right medication at the right time of day, and can alert family if the person doesn’t press a button to indicate they’ve taken it. That the industry surrounding such a sad reality should be large enough to inspire a trade fair undoubtedly offers a window on the country’s ageing future.