“Change your life with an Open University qualification” boasts the OU website. And this week’s guest, author and dementia campaigner Gina Awad, did exactly that – though actually she changed not just her life but many hundreds, possibly thousands, of lives. For it was through a health and social care degree in 2011, at the age of 41, that she first became interested in dementia.
Since then she’s gone on to win one of only 12 of the highly competitive places on a training retreat in America for those who work or share their lives with people with dementia. She’s trekked the Great Wall of China, raising £2,500 for Alzheimer’s Research UK, been named Dementia Champion of the Year by the Alzheimer’s Society, created a dementia friendly GP resource guide for Devon, introduced dementia-friendly cinema screenings, collaborated with award-winning cartoonist Tony Husband to produce two “Shining a Light on Dementia” calendars, been recognised as one of the one hundred most influential women in Exeter and, in 2018, received a British Empire Medal for voluntary services for people living with dementia in Devon.
She also presents a radio show focussed on living better with dementia. But by far her biggest achievement, Gina says, is launching Exeter’s Dementia Action Alliance.
Later this year, in June, Gina’s book, “United: Caring For Our Loved Ones Living With Dementia”, once again written in collaboration with the cartoonist Tony Husband, will be published.
What is perhaps even more extraordinary is that Gina’s passion and drive to improve life for those with dementia comes not from direct personal experience, but rather from childhood memories of her and sister visiting care homes with their grandmother, who encouraged residents to engage in the creative arts.
“What really struck me then, over 40 years ago, was not the residents who were involved with the activities but those who weren’t. I felt a myriad of emotions to which, at the time, I didn’t connect. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realised the impact those residents had had on me. As a little girl I’d observed and identified with their sense of disconnectedness, fear and vulnerability – and their isolation and loneliness never left me”.
Now, everything Gina does is about making a difference for those with dementia and their families. “I want people to feel included and understood, she says, and to be treated with compassion so that they can live a meaningful life”.