When Penny Garner's mother Dorothy at 59, started showing signs of dementia and simultaniously providing shafts of information about what was happening to her, her daughter Penny watched and listened hard. She remembers the day Dorothy, feeling agitated, stood in her kitchen holiding a list of reminders written for her by her concerned, and highly organised husband.
"She looked at us and said 'Can you explain to me what is the point of writing these lists if I'm not going to remember to read them?'" On another occasion at Penny's home Dorothy brandished a pint of milk and asked where the fridge was. 'I wouldn't be asking if I didn't need the information' she explained.
Over five years or so Penny made a series of observations that has enabled her to develop a radical new treatment for all forms of dementia. Called Specal - Specialised Early Care for Alzheimer's - which is also the name of her charity based in Burford Oxfordshire, it revolves round her insight that while people who have dementia cannot store new facts, they can store new feelings.
Last year Oliver James, the clinical psychologist and Penny’s son-in-law, explained Specal in a book called Contented Dementia, which last week became available in paperback. The hardback sales, 20,000 so far and achieved largely through word of mouth, show that it is acquiring a following in families affected by dementia, and Penny is aware that it is filtering into GPs’ surgeries and care homes.
She and James recently presented her ideas to the Shadow Health Minister, Lord McColl of Dulwich, at the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), and it is likely that Specal will become part of a future Conservative government’s policy, not least because people are living longer. At present 700,000 people in the UK have dementia and their care costs £17 billion a year. If, as expected, the number of people with dementia doubles over the next 30 years, the cost of care will spiral much higher.