Experts say school-based dementia education could deliver much needed empathy and understanding for older generations.

New research from the University of South Australia shows targeted education can significantly improve dementia knowledge and awareness among younger generations – a timely finding given the world’s ageing population and growing prevalence of dementia.

Globally, around 50 million people have dementia. By 2030 this figure is expected to reach 82 million, and by 2050, it could exceed 152 million.

UniSA’s Dr Ashleigh Smith says intergenerational dementia education can transform the way younger generations treat older people to encourage a much-needed age-friendly world.

“Children are our future leaders, they’re our local shop keepers, bankers, and neighbours. If we’re to improve dementia understanding, we need to invest in the education of our children,” Dr Smith says.

“Children generally don’t know much about people living with dementia – unless they have a family member of family friend that has the condition.

“When children are in primary school, their minds and health beliefs are still malleable; this is when they’re open to learning about new ideas. So, it’s an ideal time to educate them about challenging topics, like dementia.

“By teaching children about dementia, we’re not only improving their knowledge and fostering positive attitudes towards dementia now, but maybe even reducing their own future risk of dementia as an adult – it’s exciting stuff.”

The research reviewed the results of an intergenerational dementia education program called ‘Forget Me Not’, developed in partnership between the City of Unley, Unley Primary School and aged-care provider ECH.

The program brought together ninety Year Four and Five students who, over an eight-week period learned about dementia and interacted with older adults, many of whom had a cognitive impairment or dementia diagnosis.

Through co-operative activities such as arts and crafts, gardening and playing pool, the older adults took on the role of teachers, mentors and coaches, while the children developed lifelong skills in communication and empathy.

After completing the program, children showed significant increases in dementia knowledge and attitudes, with observed improvements in communication, empathy and understanding, inclusivity and personhood (viewing a someone with dementia as a valued individual and person).

The older people also enjoyed the interaction, felt engaged with community and that they were valued members of society.

“Dementia education is a critical step for building empathetic, insightful and caring communities,” Dr Smith says.

“You only need to look at the current state of Australia’s aged care system to see the acute need for better education in this area.

“We know this type of education works; the next step is to find ways to upscale this more broadly.”