Dementia is one of the biggest health challenges facing society, and you can join the effort to combat it by pursuing postgraduate study
The Alzheimer's Society says that 850,000 people in the UK suffer from dementia. This is expected to rise to a staggering 1.1 million by 2025. On top of the obvious impact this has on individual patients (as well as their families, friends and carers), the cost to the UK economy is estimated at £26.3billion a year.
'We live in a society with an ageing population,' explains Dr Louise McCabe, course director of MSc Dementia Studies at the University of Stirling. 'Dementia is an age-related condition for which there is no medical cure, so the need for high quality care in this area has never been more crucial.'
The NHS describes dementia as a syndrome associated with an ongoing decline of the brain and its abilities, leading to problems with memory loss, mental agility, language and understanding.
Caused by various disorders of the brain, most commonly Alzheimer's disease, it is a progressive condition - meaning that it gets gradually worse. And although it is primarily found in older people, a surprising 1 in 20 of those with dementia are under the age of 65.
This is a global problem: the World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified dementia as a major international priority for public health.
In the UK, too, the government has made tackling it one of the top healthcare priorities. As Dr Elizabeth Collier, lecturer in mental health at the University of Salford says, 'The National Dementia Strategy for England is clear that we all have a role to play in building dementia-friendly communities.'
Discover best practice
There are various career paths that you can take in this field. You could research dementia's causes and potential cures, care for patients, or help to make society more dementia-friendly (which, according to the Alzheimer's Society, means ensuring that people with dementia 'feel understood, valued and able to contribute to their community').
Many UK universities run relevant postgraduate courses. For example, the University of Stirling's MSc Dementia Studies - which can also be taken as a postgraduate certificate (PGCert) or postgraduate diploma (PGDip) - provides students with an in-depth, research-based knowledge of dementia that has a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach to care.
'The course is aimed at health and social care professionals, from the public and private sectors, looking to enhance their professional knowledge or gain specialist expertise in dementia care, ' says Dr McCabe.
'We also receive students from more diverse backgrounds including law and architecture, where it's crucial for them to consider the needs of people with dementia.'
The MSc is a three-year programme and modules can be accessed online. This format means that the course attracts people from around the world. 'Students have the opportunity to come to Stirling twice a year for dedicated lectures, or they can access these "live" through an online lecture theatre,' says Dr McCabe.
She believes that the course's strength is in bringing together people from different disciplines to share and discover best practice, in order to improve dementia care.
'The course focuses on aspects of everyday living and how we can best support people to live well with dementia,' adds Dr McCabe. 'This ranges from the importance of physical activity and a social life to innovative, creative approaches and sector-leading work on the design of environments for dementia care delivery.'
A positive approach
Another option is the University of Salford's MSc Dementia: Care and the Enabling Environment. Like the course at Stirling, it's aimed at students from a wide range of backgrounds.
Dr Collier says, 'Students on the programme have come from professions including interior design, green spaces planning, construction management, occupational therapy, nursing and physiotherapy.'
She adds that the course offers a positive approach to dementia, and enables students to develop their knowledge and skills within the context of many potential career paths. 'The University of Salford has clear goals concerning employability and this programme provides the potential for new career opportunities,' she says.
Again, the course can be studied as a PGCert or PGDip as well as an MSc, and is taught by experts from the School of the Built Environment, School of Health Sciences, and School of Nursing, Midwifery, Social Work & Social Sciences.
In addition, there are strong links to the Salford Institute for Dementia, which works with regional, national and international partners, and with the postgraduate research community. It aims to make a positive difference to those living with dementia.
'Students are encouraged and supported to interact with the Institute, enhancing opportunities for learning and career progression,' explains Dr Collier.
'The students work closely with dementia associates - colleagues of the Institute who are living with the condition - offering them a unique chance to hear first-hand about how they can support people with dementia.'
She suggests that graduates with this degree will be an asset to organisations that are beginning to understand the role they play in providing accessible and supportive public spaces. 'The UK's integrated health and social care agenda will also mean that the skills covered in this programme will be increasingly relevant in the future,' Dr Collier concludes.
Find the right course
You'll find specialist postgraduate courses in dementia at universities throughout the UK. The University Sheffield runs a Masters-level programme in Dementia Studies, the University of East Anglia offers MSc Leadership in Dementia Care, and Bournemouth University has an MSc Applied Dementia Studies.
Many are offered part time, and are primarily aimed at health and social care professionals or others who come into regular contact with people with dementia. However, their precise focus and entry requirements vary, so search for postgraduate courses to find the one that matches your interests.
For example, the University of Bradford's School of Dementia Studies is 'known for providing education that meets the needs of people working or volunteering with people with dementia', according to the school's senior lecturer and head of education programmes, Dr Sarah Jane Smith. Its part-time MSc takes three years to complete, through part-time distance learning, while PGDip and PGCert qualifications are also available.
'Our programmes enable students to enhance their knowledge and understanding and facilitate change within their own practice,' she adds. 'Our education is embedded in a philosophy of person-centred care and reflects the latest research in the field of dementia care.'
Students can expect to work with tutors who are active in research or practice in dementia care. 'We also work closely with a team of experts by experience - people living with dementia and their carers - to develop and deliver our curriculum.'
She concludes, 'There are specific programmes for individuals who deliver training in dementia care. In addition, we have specialist PGCerts related to the provision of arts and activities for people with dementia and post-diagnostic support.'