Wednesday 23 January 2013

The ageing mind

Given that dementia is one of the diseases that people fear the most, there is a very strange acceptance that we will all have ‘memory problems’ as we get older. Indeed the government’s National Clinical Director for Dementia, Alistair Burns, recently said in a meeting with myself and other colleagues that "by the time he got memory problems" he hoped that all the work he has done to revolutionise dementia care in the UK would have come to fruition.

Personally, I have always found it curious that memory problems are so associated with old age. Many people of my generation and much younger struggle to remember all kinds of day-to-day things, with such lapses sometimes impacting very negatively on their work or relationships. For some people that forgetfulness is as a result of enjoying a little too much alcohol, often with the intention of ‘drinking to forget’. In those circumstances forgetfulness is somehow celebrated by the young, yet in our older generations it is considered a weakness by society.

So are we perpetuating a myth by bracketing a decline in memory with growing older? Obviously as we get older all our organs, including our brains, can begin to show the effects of having worked so hard for all those previous years. Lapses, small failings and those ‘what did I come into this room for’ moments affect everyone at some time in their lives, but memory problems alone do not necessarily mean that someone has dementia or will go on to develop it.

Associating memory problems with older age also has much darker connotations. Memory problems in all their forms, from the mildest to the most serious, can often lead to the assumption that the person is stupid. It is a myth that haunts dementia to this day, and one that is wholly inaccurate. Moreover, if you take that one step further and assume that all older people have memory problems, it is no wonder that much of our society believes that our older generation have less worth than their younger counterparts.

As in so many matters, whilst the young can ‘get away with it’, our older people are usually judged the most harshly. Moreover, once those widespread assumptions are made about the abilities of our older people to be able to engage their brains, they then find themselves largely excluded from decisions that affect them, particularly but certainly not exclusively, in health and social care.

Take for example the current controversies around dementia ‘screening’ (something that I will be blogging about in the near future). Has anyone asked the population over 75 what they think about these proposals? Probably not, and if they have, I very much doubt anyone listened to the response. Yet with an ageing population, the ‘grey vote’ as it is so patronisingly described will have an ever increasing say in the futures of our politicians. Perhaps it is time for policy makers to offer a little more respect, and authority, to their elders and betters.

So how do our older generation fight back against the assumptions being made about their memory? All the best advice I’ve ever heard about keeping your brain in tip-top shape largely revolves around the standard recommendations for a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, reducing stress and getting enough sleep, but what really stands out for me is the part about socialising.

A roaring social life, even better than you had in your teens and twenties, is the sort of prescription I think most people would like from their doctor. No longer is ageing all about growing old gracefully – it’s about getting out and singing, dancing, acting, volunteering, campaigning, getting involved in community projects, and putting the world to rights with friends in coffee shops and mates down the pub.

The benefits of socialising shouldn’t just be confined to those trying to prevent memory problems however. If anything social interaction becomes even MORE vital for those people who already have memory problems that form part of living with dementia. Yet this can be the one time in someone’s life when they are least likely to have opportunities to socialise or be accepted by their community if they try to.

How ironic that the isolation many older people feel, whether they already have issues with their memory or not, is effectively increasing the numbers of people with memory problems and the severity of their symptoms. Moreover, the widespread assumptions being made about older people developing memory problems has the potential to turn into the sort of self-fulfilling prophesy that marginalises our older generation even more. We should be supporting our older citizens to lead full and active lives within their communities and, most importantly of all, make the best of every asset that they have, including their memory.

Until next time...

Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886

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