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Meet Gina Awad the Devon dementia-friendly champion

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: May 18, 2017

Dementia friendly volunteers

Dementia Friends Champion, Gina Awad.

Thousands of Dementia Friends in the South West are making life a little easier for people who are living with the disease by providing dementia friendly support.

Nationally there are 1.9 million of the friends who commit to learning about dementia and to do what they can to help, in an initiative by the Alzheimer’s Society.

That assistance might include staying in touch with somebody they know who has dementia, volunteering with an organisation or simply being patient and helpful when they come across somebody who has the disease.

Many learn about what they can do through a Dementia Friends Champion, such as Gina Awad. She has delivered more than 100 sessions to groups and businesses in Exeter, encouraging the organisations and the individuals within them to become Dementia Friends. That commitment, and her work with Exeter Dementia Action Alliance, earned the volunteer the title of the UK Dementia Friends Champion of the Year for 2016 from the Alzheimer’s Society.

Gina Awad on a dementia virtual reality tour in Exeter

Gina Awad on a dementia virtual reality tour in Exeter “Being a Dementia Friend can make a real difference,” she said, speaking during Dementia Awareness Week. “The help can be really basic and simple. It can give somebody with dementia the confidence to go out, knowing that people will understand and be prepared to help them.” Examples included a shopping session at Marks & Spencer and dementia-friendly screenings at a city cinema where seats were free for carers and the lights were kept on while the film was shown.

“The more people talk about dementia the less of a stigma those who have dementia feel,” said Ms Awad. “It also encourage people to get a diagnosis.” In turn, that means treatment and help can be given sooner.

Her interest goes back to childhood when she used to go into care homes with her grandmother, who delivered creative arts sessions. “I must have been about seven,” she said. “I was more interested in the people who weren’t engaged by the sessions. They looked sad. They looked frightened. They were on the fringes and there was a feeling of ‘just leave them there; they’re in their own world’. That’s how it was then, 40 years ago: there was much less known about dementia.”

Ms Awad’s interest grew six years ago when she began a degree in health and social care, which included studying dementia. She became active as a volunteer. “There were lots of things happening to help people with dementia in Exeter, but a lot of it was in isolation,” he said. “There was not much joined-up thinking.” That prompted her to help set up Exeter Dementia Action Alliance, in late 2014, following a lead taken by Plymouth four years earlier. Ms Awad is the project co-ordinator of the alliance, which has about 60 members including the city council, Exeter City FC, health centres, shops and other businesses.

Her 2016 honour came as the county picked up a hat-trick of prizes in the Alzheimer’s Society National Dementia Friendly Awards.

Plymouth was named the Dementia Friendly City of the Year and Honiton took the title for the leading rural community.

“We are trail blazing in the South West,” she said. “This work is making a big difference to people with dementia and their carers – carers are so important.”