Health secretary Jeremy Hunt wants Norfolk to ‘blaze a trail for the rest of the UK’ in dementia care

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has spoken of his hopes for Norfolk to 'blaze a trail for the rest of the UK' in dementia care as he revealed it is expected to become 'the oldest county in Britain' within three years.

In his first official visit outside London as health secretary, Mr Hunt spent time with staff, patients and carers at Norwich's Hammerton Court dementia intensive care unit.

The health secretary also said he would be looking to ensure performance is improved and public confidence restored in the region's under-fire ambulance service.

Mr Hunt, who was only appointed health secretary last month, said his visit to Norfolk was to learn from the positive work taking shape in the county to help people with dementia.

The �13m unit, in Bowthorpe Road, has 36 bedrooms and also houses the Norfolk Dementia Care Academy - which aims to be a centre of excellence in training staff and carers to look after people with the illness.

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Mr Hunt said: 'It's a huge challenge for the whole country, but it's a particular challenge for Norfolk and Suffolk and that's why, outside London, Norfolk is the first place that I have visited.

'Norfolk's actually going to become the oldest county in Britain within three years, so the NHS and social services here are acutely aware it's something that needs to tackled, and Suffolk isn't far behind.

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'So I wanted to talk to professionals here who have been dealing with this problem to see what I could learn in terms of the way we formulate policy nationally.'

Mr Hunt said there were three things that needed to be done better to improve care for people with dementia.

He said the first was to tackle that nationally, we are still not diagnosing half of the people who have dementia.

'The message we need to get out loud and clear is that there are drugs that can really help you if you have got dementia, that can stave off the condition for a number of years and mean that you can live at home for longer.'

He said the second step was to improve care for people who do have dementia, for example making it easier for patients and their loved ones to access personal budgets, which mean they are more likely to stay at home for longer.

Mr Hunt said: 'The final thing is a societal thing. We have just got to get rid of the stigma around dementia.

'There was a stigma around cancer in the 1960s which we have got over and as a result we are much better at recognising cancer and coming forward and giving people the treatment they need.

'We have got to make that change for dementia as well.

'I just saw a brilliant training programme for NHS employees to help them recognise the signs of dementia and to think about how they might treat people differently if they have dementia and that's something that we need to do.'

The number of people with dementia is predicted to rise by 51pc by 2025.

But in Norfolk the expected increase is 62pc - pushing the total to above 20,000 - and in Suffolk 65pc, because the number of elderly people in the two counties is growing every year.

Norfolk is gearing up to become a dementia-friendly county, which aims to draw on the support of a vast range of organisations, businesses and the wider community in understanding more about dementia and how to help people with the condition.

Mr Hunt said: 'It's a very, very good idea and I really want to offer every support.

In Japan they had a campaign to get one million dementia-friendly volunteers across the whole country and it's worked wonders and I think Norfolk could blaze a trail for the rest of the UK.'

Aidan Thomas, chief executive of the mental health trust, said: 'I think it's really important that staff here are able to influence the secretary of state in his views on care for older people.

'I think he listened to the views of staff at all levels in the service here and as far as I'm concerns that's one of the most important things that ministers should do.

'He certainly was listening to lots of suggestions as to how we could improve the care for dementia, not just in Norfolk, but across the country.

'His visit also recognises the quality of the service our staff have developed here.

'It also recognises that this work is not just the mental health trust and that it's all the agencies that work with older people.'

Yesterday, Norfolk's three acute hospitals announced that they were the among the first in the country sign up to being dementia friendly in a new initiative being led by the Norfolk and Suffolk Dementia Alliance.

Norfolk patients, families and carers will benefit from a dementia friendly approach at the James Paget University Hospital, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at King's Lynn.

Julia Hunt, deputy director of nursing at the James Paget University Hospital, said: 'We care for a population that is older than average and we fully recognise the need to better cater for the specific needs of patients living with dementia. We are recruiting two new posts, jointly funded by the Norfolk and Suffolk Dementia Alliance, to help improve the experience of our dementia patients and their carers. We are also investing in improvements to signage and the ward environment for our dementia patients.'

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