Last year was an awful one. Lives and livelihoods put on hold. Loved ones lost. Economies ground to a halt. But, science and the incredible people who work in our research laboratories, have shone a light through the darkness- proving, in creating, in such short a time, vaccines that work and will beat Covid-19 into submission; that mankind, medicine, science, can overcome most anything.
So, as we return our way of life to normal, let us turn our attention, with the same determination, focus and drive to beating the most heartrendingly cruel disease on the planet. Let us bid farewell to the long goodbye, the disease which robs people of their very self - that steals precious years from families and friends, that subjects both sufferers and their loved ones to years of pain and sadness as the person they were, the person they knew, slips slowly out of sight.
Both my grandmothers suffered from dementia. Both went from being active, fun, proud women, active in their churches and communities- engaged wives, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, friends to shadows of themselves- unable to remember who they were, where they were, how to do the most basic of things. As a grandson, it was so sad to see.
Sad to visit them in their, thankfully, amazing care homes, knowing that the gran who had made you laugh dancing around the living room to Donald O’Connor or the woman who had driven for miles to take you to swimming lessons would never return - the woman who had lunched with the Queen, who had minded the town laundry during the war, who was chair of the Inner Wheel and WRI, who had married a young sailor and followed him to Malta, who had sung Handel’s Messiah and made the best home made chips – had gone but physically remained. Just left, unable to perform even the most basic of cognitive functions. By the end, both, unable to even talk.
Sometimes, there would be a glimmer of light in their eyes, the hint of a smile of recognition and for a split second you hoped, you prayed, that part of the old gran was in there – fighting to come back. But as quickly as it appeared, it would vanish, and the long, lost look, that sad stare into the distance would return.
The best part of a decade, the last years of their lives, were lost to them. Birthdays, weddings, school concerts, graduations came and went. And for my maternal grandfather, for near ten years, hours of every day, spent in a care home, by the side of my mum's mum - doing and saying not very much. Just being there. He didn’t have Alzheimer’s. But years of his life were stolen too. He too suffered.
My family is not alone. This story is replicated hundreds of thousands of times across the country.
We have become numb to the daily facts and figures around Covid. The grim statistics- the charts showing infection rates and deaths. But the facts on dementia are just as stark: it is estimated 850,000 people in the UK are currently suffering from dementia. It is thought that by 2025, that number will reach 1 million. And double by 2050.
That is 2 million individuals and 2 million families due to be affected by this awful disease. Cruelly, Alzheimer’s Research UK reckon that Years of life lost due to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias doubled from 4.2m to 8.3m between 2000 and 2012 globally.
We must act. The time is now. We must act with the same speed and determination to finding a cure and treatment for Alzheimer’s that we have in finding a vaccine for Covid.
It is a very good thing that the government has a Dementia Strategy, aiming to make this the best country in the world for dementia care and support for individuals with dementia, their carers and families to live. That was an ambition to be saluted and acknowledged.
But let us go further. When we renew our Dementia Strategy let us raise our sights. Let us push for more. Let’s beat Alzheimer’s just as we are about to beat Covid - into submission.
*Article written for The Times, Red Box, January 2021