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Emmerdale actor tells students about dementia experiences

18th May 2016

As part of the national Dementia Awareness Week events, Emmerdale actor John Middleton paid a visit to Northumbria University to talk about his experiences of portraying a character diagnosed with the condition.

Working with the Alzheimer’s Society, students and staff from across the University showcased Northumbria’s vast range of research and dementia-related work at a special event which opened a week of awareness-raising activities. The conference was attended by carers and delegates from regional organisations who support people with dementia.

With 850,000 people in the UK diagnosed with dementia, Emmerdale is helping to shine a spotlight on the condition and address common misunderstandings. John was the keynote speaker at the event, talking about his role as the ITV soap opera’s resident vicar who was recently diagnosed with vascular dementia. The Alzheimer’s Society is advising ITV on the scripts to ensure they show a realistic representation of someone living with dementia.

During the event, John explained how he felt about the storyline and how he is working to handle it sensitively. He said: “When I first heard about the storyline my first reaction was that it’s a fantastic story that will give me an amazing, dramatic opportunity. I knew a little bit about dementia, but then I started doing a lot of research and realised what a huge, huge issue this is and not only that, but that we had to get it right. If we didn’t get it right, it would be an immense disservice to people with dementia and their carers.

“The extraordinary thing is in terms of the reach that we have is that we are watched by six million people six times a week. That’s a huge number of people so I’m privileged in many ways that I can raise awareness of this issue and not only that, but on a show like ours we can take the time that it deserves, and  I’m delighted to be part of that.”

Northumbria’s activity around dementia is wide-ranging, covering all areas of academic expertise. In health and wellbeing, they are working with a community organisation to bring together older people and hen-keeping to combat loneliness and depression. In the arts, the University has led on the development of a critically-acclaimed play which has been performed at the Edinburgh Festival which encourages the audience to think about how they live and work alongside those who have been diagnosed with dementia, and in architecture.

Another major project that Northumbria academics are involved in is the development of a new mobile phone game designed to monitor how our brain conducts spatial navigation. A loss of spatial awareness can be one of the first effects that people with dementia experience, as they lose their ability to navigate through familiar environments. Working with organisations including Deutsche Telekom, Alzheimer’s Research UK and University College London, researchers from Northumbria’s Department of Architecture and Built Environment were brought into the project for their expertise in how to design buildings and neighbourhoods that are easy for people to navigate. The Sea Hero Quest app is now available for free download from the App Store and Google Play.

Dianne Ford, Executive Dean of Health and Life Sciences at Northumbria University, said: “We were delighted to be able to host this event, and particularly to welcome John Middleton, who is doing much to raise awareness of this condition. Dementia is devastating not only for the individuals diagnosed, but also for their families and friends who try to support them through this difficult time.

“Although there is currently no cure for dementia, there are many ways that we can work to make the condition more comfortable for those living with it. This is the fourth year that we have held a week of activities to showcase the multi-disciplinary approach we take here at Northumbria towards helping to improve the lives of those who are coping with dementia on a daily basis.”

Hazel Cuthbertson, North East Operations Manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, added: “Our theme for Dementia Awareness Week is confronting dementia. We want people to know that there is hope, we want people to know that there is support and advice available for them and that at the Alzheimer’s Society we can give them just that. If people are worried about dementia either themselves or if they are worried about a family member or a friend then get in touch with us and we can give them the advice and support on what to do next.”

Northumbria University will be encouraging its students, staff and visitors to give their opinions on what they think can be done to confront dementia in a video vox-pop booth at its Coach Lane Campus. The responses will be used by academic researchers to create a report on approaches to challenge the condition.

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