You are in a busy supermarket, you look into your purse and you cannot find the right money. The queue is building up behind you, people start to lose their patience. Can you imagine how that feels?
This is one of the examples that came up at today’s Dementia Friends training session at work, provided by an Alzheimer’s Society volunteer (a Dementia Champion). It is an example that I know very well. One of my grandfathers did have a condition that involved dementia-type symptoms and when the euro was introduced in 2002 in Catalonia he stopped going to supermarkets. From then on he would only shop in a few small local shops and market stalls where he trusted the owners enough to hand over his wallet and let them pick out the right amount of money. The first time I witnessed this I was struck both by how vulnerable he had become and by the wonderful way in which those people helped him continue doing the shopping and retain some of his independence.
His independence had become dependent on having people in his local community who knew him and adapted to his changing needs and abilities. Ideally, if faced with a condition like dementia, we would want to live in a community where people would recognise the signs and do these little things that can make such a difference.
The Dementia Friends initiative of the Alzheimer’s Society aims to ensure that people with dementia find their communities friendlier and easier. It is all about small gestures and understanding that can make the difference between someone becoming isolated and housebound or being able to remain socially active and as independent as possible. They aim to reach 1 million people through their Dementia Friends information sessions. These sessions take just one hour and, despite my personal and even professional experience with dementia, the one I have done today has opened my eyes both to how it may feel to live with dementia and to my own misconceptions about it. And I want to help spread the word, which is why I have also signed up to train to become a Dementia Friends Champion so I can help them reach more people.
There are, of course, many other people in our communities for whom these small gestures and a more open mind would make a big difference. It is always too easy to judge people when their behaviours and abilities are unexpected and perhaps take away some of our precious time or even inconvenience us. Some may have dementia, some may have other conditions. Perhaps the child whose parents are unable to calm him down in the supermarket has autism and they are actually doing a great job keeping him safe despite the fact that they can’t stop him screaming. Yet it is so easy to pass judgement and become irritated. It is good to be reminded that one day we can all be the person who generates a long queue at the train ticket machine, or the supermarket till and to think about how we could be made to feel better and even be helped in that situation.