Health secretary Jeremy Hunt visits Norwich dementia unit

The reality of living with and caring for someone with dementia is extremely tough, and Thorpe St Andrew pensioner Maurice Bartle was among carers who told health secretary Jeremy Hunt more about the difficulties they face when he visited Norwich yesterday.

The 72-year-old lives in South Hill Road with his wife Shirley, also 72, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's two years ago.

Mr Bartle, a retired maintenance electrician, said: 'At the moment we are going through a difficult patch. The wife has got a bit of a rejection of drugs and of me sometimes.'

The pair visit Hammerton Court's day centre one day a week and Mr Bartle said he valued being able to meet other carers.

The �13m unit, in Bowthorpe Road, has 36 bedrooms and also houses the Norfolk Dementia Care Academy - which aims to be a centre of excellence in training staff and carers to look after people with the illness.

He said: 'I have found it ideal, but it's not for long enough and I wish we could come for longer.

'I have found it very informative and it's given me a lot of extra information I wasn't aware of until I came here.'

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It is because of the challenges that people like Mr and Mrs Bartle face, that Mr Hunt said he wanted to visit Norfolk, which he hopes will 'blaze a trail for the rest of the UK' in dementia care as it is expected to become 'the oldest county in Britain' within three years.

Mr Hunt, who was only appointed health secretary last month, said: 'It's a huge challenge for the whole country, but it's a particular challenge for Norfolk and Suffolk and that's why, outside London, Norfolk is the first place that I have visited.

'Norfolk's actually going to become the oldest county in Britain within three years, so the NHS and social services here are acutely aware it's something that needs to tackled, and Suffolk isn't far behind.

'So I wanted to talk to professionals here who have been dealing with this problem to see what I could learn in terms of the way we formulate policy nationally.'

Mr Hunt said there were three things that needed to be done better to improve care for people with dementia.

He said the first was to tackle that nationally, we are still not diagnosing half of the people who have dementia.

'The message we need to get out loud and clear is that there are drugs that can really help you if you have got dementia, that can stave off the condition for a number of years and mean that you can live at home for longer.'

He said the second step was to improve care for people who do have dementia, for example making it easier for patients and their loved ones to access personal budgets, which mean they are more likely to stay at home for longer.

Mr Hunt said: 'The final thing is a societal thing. We have just got to get rid of the stigma around dementia.

'There was a stigma around cancer in the 1960s which we have got over and as a result we are much better at recognising cancer and coming forward and giving people the treatment they need.

'We have got to make that change for dementia as well.'

Norfolk is gearing up to become a dementia-friendly county, which aims to draw on the support of a vast range of organisations, businesses and the wider community in understanding more about dementia and how to help people with the condition.

Mr Hunt said: 'It's a very, very good idea and I really want to offer every support.

In Japan they had a campaign to get one million dementia-friendly volunteers across the whole country and it's worked wonders and I think Norfolk could blaze a trail for the rest of the UK.'

Yesterday, Norfolk's three acute hospitals announced that they were the among the first in the country sign up to being dementia friendly in a new initiative being led by the Norfolk and Suffolk Dementia Alliance.

Norfolk patients, families and carers will benefit from a dementia friendly approach at the James Paget University Hospital, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at King's Lynn.