THOUSANDS of runners will take to the streets of London this weekend, many of them raising money for charities close to their hearts. Vicki Henderson went to meet one first time marathon runner, who has taken on the challenge for both personal and professional reasons.

DEMENTIA has been described as one of the greatest health and social care challenges facing the UK, with 33,000 people thought to be living with the condition in the North-East alone.

But the £66m of Government funding each year for research into all forms of dementia is dwarfed by the public funding available for cancer research.

The Alzheimer’s Society has called for more money to be pumped into research to find a cure for dementia but despite a pledge from the government to double funding by 2025, many believe there is more to be done.

One of those people is Jeremy Walford, managing director of Middleton Hall Retirement Village, based on the edge of Middleton St George, near Darlington, who will pull on his trainers this weekend to run the London Marathon for the Alzheimer’s Society.

“Dementia and Alzheimer’s is up there with energy security and obesity as something that we must tackle now,” he says.

“If not, future generations will look back and wonder what on earth we were doing.”

Mr Walford’s concerns are not restricted to the funding available for research – he believes the way we care for people with dementia needs a complete rethink.

Mr Walford became directly involved in caring for someone with dementia for the first time when his father, David, was diagnosed with vascular dementia several years ago.

He says: “I moved my father to Middleton Hall from a different care home when he was in a poor state with dementia so that he could end his days here. As it was, he perked up physically and mentally and he lived another two years.

“The only thing that was different was that we offered him more stimulation. He got me thinking – if that could work for my dad, it might be possible to do things differently.

“We had never provided dementia care before because we wanted to know that we could do it well enough.”

Mr Walford spent time in the Netherlands, which has a very different attitude to caring for people with dementia.

He says: “In the UK if you develop dementia you tend to get stuck in a big care home with big dining rooms with 40 other people. All decision making powers are taken away from you – it’s institutionalisation.

“If that happened to me, I wouldn’t react very well to that.”

On the back of his experiences in the Netherlands, Middleton Hall set up a small pilot scheme – which has now been running for almost three years – where eight people diagnosed with dementia live together and share daily tasks together, retaining their independence for as long as possible.

“We are focusing on what they can do, rather than what they can’t,” says Mr Walford. “We’ve been doing it quietly to see if it can work and it does seem to.”

Mr Walford is a keen supporter of the Alzheimer’s Society and wants to raise awareness of the ‘inadequate’ funding available for dementia research and care in the UK.

He says: “As a country we cannot afford what is going to happen. The NHS and local authorities will not be able to cope 20 years down the line.

“We don’t have the means to care for people with dementia and the numbers are only going to increase.”

The Alzheimer’s Society agrees. Rob Stewart, from the charity’s North-East office, says: “Research has transformed the lives of millions living with heart disease, stroke, HIV/Aids and cancer and the Alzheimer's Society feels strongly that the time has come to make dementia a priority.

“The fact a quarter of hospital beds are occupied by people with dementia is living proof of the enormous burden it causes to the NHS.

“It is vital that we find a cure but worryingly there are currently more trials going on into hay fever than into some of the most common forms of dementia. That is why we have decided to up our investment on research from around £2.5m to £10m in 2015.”

Mr Walford will be one of a number of people running the marathon for the Alzheimer’s Society this weekend, all of whom have personal experience of caring for someone living with dementia.

But he says: “It shouldn’t really be down to a group of people like me trotting around London to raise money for dementia research. The current government and the last government have both been very short-sighted not to invest in this area.”