Around three years ago, my father walked into a mobile phone shop on his local high street in West Wales, determined to upgrade to a new model. He approached a young sales assistant – probably no older than 17 years old – and attempted to describe what he was looking for.
But he couldn’t. My father suffers from a rare form of semantic dementia, which affects speech and language function (as depicted with uncanny accuracy by Julianne Moore in her Oscar-winning turn in Still Alice).
While never much of a technophile, he was simply unable to convey any meaning in his request, instead producing a garbled stream of linguistic anomalies – which probably made no reference to a phone at all, and rendered him indecipherable.
The exchange was not only fruitless, but one which ended in humiliation. The sales assistant clearly found my father’s incapacity to communicate so amusing that he subsequently laughed him out of the shop.
When my mother recounted that incident to me for the first time – only last month – my initial reaction was one of arrant anger, and a desire to find the perpetrator and haul him over the coals.
It’s hard to keep an objective head when faced with trauma that is so innately personal and emotional. I don’t suppose I’ll ever be able to pardon the callow phone hawker’s behaviour. But the inability to determine my father’s condition is not something that can be so easily faced.
Still Alice explores early onset Alzheimer’s. Video: YouTube
However, much has happened in the three intervening years to suggest that if my father – or any dementia sufferer – walked into a retail outlet today, the response might be altogether different.
Last month, “Dementia Friends” – an Alzheimer’s Society initiative, whose remit is to train people in all walks of public life on how to spot signs of the disease to help sufferers – saw its membership total 1m.
The scheme was only launched in 2013, making this feat particularly impressive – although, as Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, tells me: “The plan was always to get to a million, even though everyone said we were being far too ambitious.”
It is this sense of ambition that has seen Dementia Friends cast its net wider and wider over the last two years, disseminating awareness across broad strata of British public life – from grassroots community-led initiatives to educating front office staff of both local and big businesses.
However, with its long-term goal of creating this country’s first “dementia-friendly” generation, the Alzheimer’s Society has made a concerted effort to reach out to younger people and children.
There are already 140 schools involved in a pilot programme to develop dementia awareness in the classroom.
“It’s been fascinating to see how varied and vibrant conversations have been in these schools,” said Hughes. “In another survey we did earlier this year, we discovered that over a third of people between eight and 16 years old already knew somebody with dementia in their extended family. Two thirds of them wanted to be able to help and better relate to sufferers.”
While one might presume a greater affinity towards those with dementia – due to the greater likelihood of knowing someone with the condition – older people, particularly baby-boomers, could also draw succour from shifting attitudes among the young.
“A lot of people over 50 fear dementia more than anything else, which can sometimes breed embarrassment, fear and confusion when they come face to face with sufferers,” said Hughes. “Children, on the other hand, often don’t have those hang-ups, and have a willingness to learn about the condition.”
Current forecasts suggest that by 2025 there will be 1m Britons living with dementia. Hughes believes “it is not unrealistic” that Dementia Friends will accrue another 3m members in that time.
The government recently announced that it intends to spend in excess of £300m over the next parliament to fund drug research, with the view to delivering effective treatment or a cure by 2025.
While such muscular talk might offer encouragement to some, others will be reluctant to set much store by that date due to previous let-downs.
Some would even argue that the government would be better off prioritising the reversal of cuts to the social care purse – desperately needed by those feeling the unimaginable strain of looking after family members with the condition.
If the Conservatives remain in power, this is not likely to happen anytime soon. That is why the notion of a cross-generational “dementia-friendly” society – where the condition is truly divested of stigma – means so much to dementia sufferers, as well as their families.
In fact, at present, it feels like the only promise we might be able to cling on to with any tangible hope.