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Interview: Angela Rippon

Legendary news reporter, broadcaster and presenter Angela Rippon, like 670,000 others in the UK, cared for a loved one with dementia - her mother, Edna.

Dementia, the term used to describe the symptoms of a range of diseases and conditions including memory loss, confusion and speech problems, affects 800,000 people in the UK.

The  presenter of Rip Off Britain and former news anchor for both ITV and BBC believes many people are only just starting to realise that dementia is one of the “biggest medical and social challenges” of the 21st century.

Only five years ago, journalists would ask Angela Rippon if she was “embarrassed” to talk about her mother's dementia. 

“Embarrassed was exactly the word they would use, and I would say, 'Well, no, it's an illness, just like cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart disease - people aren't afraid to talk about that!' Since then the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Now it's something that journalists are interested in, and journalists are a vital part of getting the message across because if they are aware of the impact that dementia can have on people's lives, they can get that message across to a much wider audience.” 

And where journalism goes, the media starts to follow, with dementia being discussed in a variety of forms from radio soap The Archers on BBC Radio 4, to Eastenders, to Margaret Thatcher's onset of dementia in 2011 film The Iron Lady

In the UK, over a million people will have dementia by 2021, according to figures from leading dementia charity the Alzheimer's Society. “We've realised that it's a big problem,” Angela says. 

“We're all touched by the disease in some way, there's a family member you know, or someone at work could be a carer. Bringing it into the spotlight is gradually breaking down some of the barriers.” 

Once Angela realised the difficulties many people face when their lives are affected by dementia, she became an ambassador for the Alzheimer's Society, working her way up to become the co-chair of their Dementia Friendly Communities Champion Group. 

The group includes representatives from major retailers and utility companies, who are working with local government and charities to look at how twenty cities, towns and villages in the UK can be turned 'dementia friendly' by 2015. Changes would include having greeters in supermarkets to help guide people around, and setting up dedicated dementia cafes. 

“If you're a journalist you're a communicator, and you have a natural ability, or desire to share knowledge. Hopefully what I've done is use my skills to get across a lot of these messages - but equally I think that if you're a journalist who works in the news, once you're aware of a story you worry away at it, like a dog with a bone.” 

When Edna first started showing signs of dementia, Angela initially didn't know what was happening. 

“I've never come across dementia, not really, or if I had I hadn't recognised it, which is why I didn't recognise it in my mother,” she says. “When she started showing odd symptoms I put it down to extended grief over the sudden, unexpected death of my father. But I realised as her behaviour became more and more erratic that it was more than that, at which point we got her diagnosed.

“It was a very sharp learning curve for me. There were some very hard learned lessons over the first year with my mum, because there's no 'Dementia for Dummies' handbook.” 

The first four years after Edna was diagnosed proved hard for Angela. “We looked after her at home and she had, first of all, people who came in on just an hourly basis, and then they came in twice a day.

“The care that she got at home was exactly right for her. It gave her independence to see her friends, she had all of her belongings around her, she was in familiar circumstances and surroundings because the neighbours all knew her - she'd lived there with my father for around 30 years. She was comfortable at home, she got on well with her carers.” 

However, as Edna's condition worsened, her care needs increased. “For the last two years that she was at home she had a full-time, live in nurse, so she had 24-hour care at home. After that her condition deteriorated to such a point where she needed 24-hour care in a care home. 

“She was waking up at 3am, sitting on the end of the carer's bed saying, 'Come on, you should be up getting my breakfast!' My mother's behaviour became very erratic.”

According to Alzheimer's Society figures, although only a third of people with dementia live in a care home, they comprise 80% of care home residents. 

“Most of the care homes I've had contact with over the last two years have had staff who are very much aware of how important dementia training is in providing a really good service for the people in the care home and their families, so that when they're in the care home people have the right treatment, people are given the right dignity, the right support, and families can have the confidence of knowing their loved ones are being looked after properly.” 

Speaking from her own experience, Angela believes the nursing of dementia patients in care homes is excellent. In Devon, where her mother lived, the local council has ratings for each care home, which are updated regularly. 

She says: “I was able to look at all of the care homes within a 10-mile radius of where my mother was living so that she could keep contact with all of her friends and family. The [care home we chose] wasn't one of the most modern ones, although it had a modern wing. 

“The most important thing was that the care she received was very gentle, very humane and very considerate. It's good to know that the staff are looking after your loved one with kindness and dignity, and that was the situation where my mother was concerned.” 

When speaking to nurses Angela notes that many feel they have more to learn about dementia. “There's an appetite to learn more, to be better at what they do than they already are. 

“It's always the negative stories that hit the headlines, the Mid Stafforshires and the Winterbourne Greens, even though they constitute only five or 10% of the profession and the other 90% are doing a brilliant job, doing it was well as they possibly can. In my role I've met the most amazing nurses and doctors who are brilliant, wonderful and dedicated to what they do - they're in the majority.”