Elderly loneliness and isolation is a problem facing people right across the country. This has been recognised by the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, both of whom have spoken out about the ‘national shame of the forgotten million who live among us’. Following a diagnosis of dementia, however, the problem can be even worse. Reporter JAMES METCALF investigates.
Far from being a natural part of growing old, dementia is caused by diseases of the brain.
Memory loss, mood changes, and difficulty with communicating or reasoning can all follow a diagnosis of dementia.
With 665,065 people with dementia in England alone, the stark reality is that over the next 40 years this figure is set to more than double, reaching 1,700,000 by 2051.
One in three people over 65 will develop dementia. One third of those people live on their own, despite the fact that only 23 per cent of people believe this is acceptable.
Though 38 per cent of people with dementia have said they feel lonely, the figure is much higher, at 62 per cent, for those living alone with the disease.
Organisations like Dementia Forward, which was established in April 2012, aim to combat the social isolation that can so often be a consequence of a diagnosis of dementia.
This is something the director of Carefound Home Care Oliver Stirk welcomes, as he says physical care services are only part of the solution.
He said: “Loneliness becomes worse as dementia advances. People begin to have less and less of an active lifestyle in the community and are seeing fewer people, and that is why the work that organisations like Dementia Forward are doing is so important.
“There has to be the support around people in the community. Partly that is going to have to come from families themselves, who are going to have to take more responsibility.
“Perhaps 20 per cent of our clients may not have any family support around them. Either they have no family left or they live a long way away, and in those instances loneliness is the biggest problem.
“Isolation is a huge issue, because everybody is trying to do a lot more to help people become independent, but people becoming isolated is a real problem.”
Dementia Forward has plugged the gap following a diagnosis of dementia and continues to do so for 250 families at any one time.
CEO of Dementia Forward Jill Quinn said: “There is more than one type of loneliness. The people who are here have got families supporting them, but it still can be a lonely situation because of the isolation that dementia involves.
“The biggest part of that is around confidence and stigma. Worlds shrink with a diagnosis of dementia and people stop engaging in community life in the way they did before.
“At Dementia Forward our huge push is around wellbeing, and for that having social contact with people beyond the family carer.
“We all have different social circles, but to feel comfortable you really need the people around you to get it.”
With time together Tuesdays, a singing group, regular outings, and a group for younger people with dementia, Dementia Forward also finds time to ensure carers don’t become isolated too.
Loneliness is not something that only affects people with an illness or even just the elderly, and this is something Ms Quinn is acutely aware of.
“It is just as important for family carers don’t become isolated too. It becomes easy for them to stay inside when they are caring for somebody living with dementia,” she said.
The team at Dementia Forward are working towards a dementia friendly society to combat the loneliness affecting all those affected by the condition.
To achieve this they have been working with taxi drivers, retailers, hospital staff, and school children in York, and they plan to bring this project to Harrogate.
Ms Quinn said: “We want to form a dementia friendly community but also a dementia friendly generation.
“It will take a while for someone to walk into a shop and say that they have dementia and need support and for that to be okay, but that is the aim.”
When Bill Poulter was first diagnosed with dementia he found it difficult to come to terms with the condition.
He felt angry and became withdrawn, but his outlook dramatically changed when he joined Dementia Forward.
He said: “I know I have got dementia. There is no way I can get rid of it, but it is not going to kill me off and I have got the rest of my life to live.
“I know I am getting a bit worse too, but it was going to get me anyway.
“I know now there are people there to look after me and they try their hardest instead of leaving them just sitting there suffering.
“It is good to be together with other people, and we support each other.”
Bill, who is 63, regularly dresses up as Elvis, just to make people laugh.
“There is no point looking miserable, you need to enjoy life while you have got it,” he said.
“It was tough for me to accept it, being my age, but older people laugh as well and get on with life.
“I made friends straight away. People come up to me and just tell me their name.”
At Dementia Forward, the team realise that carers can all too often become isolated themselves.
This is something Frieda Reid recognised after caring for her husband Mac since he was diagnosed with dementia.
She said: “When Mac was first diagnosed he didn’t need me as much as he does now. I could go away, even overnight very occasionally. It is three or four years now since I was able to leave him alone.
“Our social life is more than 50 per cent with them, as we come to time together Tuesdays and the singing group, and we go on trips.
“Mac meets people that he can get on with and it is a change of scene for him. He is very friendly with other people living with dementia and their carers and the support workers.
“I meet other carers too and there is nobody who understands your situation better than another carer.”
This quality time is crucial for both Mac and Frieda.
Frieda said: “What Dementia Forward does is really important. We do have friends and family but they are all busy and it can be a long day if you don’t meet other people to chat with.
“It is part of the illness that Mac will go down hill in terms of what he can manage, but one of the crucial things is keeping a good temper and, although Mac is a very cheerful person, Dementia Forward certainly helps with that.”
To contact Dementia Forward call 01765 601224, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to www.dementiaforward.org.uk.