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  • Writer's pictureTrish Beaver

Demystifying dementia

Pete Hill had not had much contact with Dementia until one day he was asked to lead an activities session for the Alzheimer’s Society. He recalls the moment when he stood outside the door to the meeting room and thought: “What am I going to do to entertain these people? How much will they understand!”

He remembers thinking: “Most men like sport and I can chat about that a lot, and most of the ladies will enjoy music and I can chat about that, so I can do this.”

But he stood outside the door to the room feeling a mixture of trepidation and anxiety. He said: “I really knew so little about Dementia and I just had no idea what to expect.”

This first meeting with a group of people with Alzheimer’s was to influence him deeply. He realised Dementia and its various forms are seen by most people as a life sentence – or a death sentence. But there are so many levels on which people can still enjoy life with the condition. They have happy memories, the things they enjoy like food or crafts, there are pieces of their personality that are always present under the surface. He believes that to simply write people off is a very sad situation.

Photo by Mario Wallner:

Pete has always enjoyed his music and his sports commentary and has been a radio presenter for various radio stations and the BBC. It’s his ability to connect with strangers in an easy relatable fashion that makes his shows enjoyable. When he got an opportunity to create a show focusing on dementia – he started The D Word.

The name comes from the cancer stigma in the 80s and 90s – if people heard you had cancer it was referred to as the “C” word. Now people have the same attitude towards dementia. Pete wants to fight against the stigma surrounding dementia. He wants people to understand it more and to realise that it is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis.

He remembers in the 1980s he was volunteering at a hospital radio station that was strangely located in an old Victorian Asylum. The old wards had been modernised and converted into a long-stay hospital.

He remembers that in one of the wards, there were a group of elderly people all seated around a television set and the screen was flickering and nothing was showing. He recalls: “It was as if the staff had forgotten about these people. They didn’t even bother to tune the television into a station or get it fixed.”

He also noticed there was a woman in the ward who was a lot younger than the others, called Catherine and while she had mild cognitive impairment, she was responsive and enjoyed interaction with Pete and other people who took the time to chat with her. “I thought it was very sad that she was also almost written off because she had the same diagnosis.”

During his time working at the hospital, he was involved one Easter in arranging a party in one of the wards. In the room was a piano and he found one chap who was able to play a couple of party tunes and that motivated the group to start singing and dancing. His sports chitchat was also able to bring some of the men out of their reverie. He noticed his involvement was having a positive effect on the group and ironically it was also making him feel valued.” He said: “One of the people in the group came up to me later and said thank you – this has been the happiest day of my life!”

Pete reflects: “I have realised that people like to put people in a box, so as soon as the diagnosis of dementia comes up, it is almost as if people expect the worst and start preparing for death instead of making the most of their time while they can function.” For some people, it is a long slow disease that can take many years to manifest and the best way to treat people with dementia is to help them to work out what signals in the brain are most receptive. He compares it to tuning into a radio station, finding the right signal for that person’s brain.

“Many people react to music; others are responsive to chatting – every person with dementia is different and I see it as my role to encourage anyone with dementia and their families and carers to keep trying to unlock the person that still exists in there.”

Pete started his show in 2019 after he realised there was no UK radio show dedicated to speaking about dementia, while there was a very useful show on air in the USA. In his show, he speaks to medical experts, people living with dementia, music therapists, various organisations and for many people his show is a ray of hope and encouragement.

He explains: “It is so important to connect with the person, not the condition. The term dementia is an umbrella term that covers many conditions that affect the cognitive abilities of the brain. Many diseases have a common element where the brain is affected. For me, the main message is to encourage people to look beyond the diagnosis.”

“To reduce people to their diagnosis is to ignore their personalities, their history and their contributions. So many people with dementia have led full extraordinary lives. They don’t deserve to be put into mothballs.”

“Much of the dementia information focuses on the fear factor so we do tackle the ways people can try and avoid this disease. There is a growing awareness of the importance of getting an early diagnosis and there are more drugs available to slow down the disease. One of the issues we have explored in the show is the factors that lead to dementia including dangerous contact sports that cause repeated head trauma.”

Recently he celebrated his 200th episode of The D Word on UK Health radio and he is proud of the contribution he has made to sharing a different view of a terrifying diagnosis. If you tune in, you will notice that the songs and music he plays are very poignant and pinpoint a distant memory or emotion. He hopes that people who live with dementia will enjoy these snippets of nostalgia that may remind them of a previous and happier time in their lives.

You can catch his show on UK Health Radio -

You can follow him on his social media:


Facebook: RadioTDW

Instagram & Threads: tdw_radio

Pete Hill (left) has made it his mission to demystify the stigma of a dementia diagnosis with his radio show - The "D" Word.


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