EVERY month, the Helensburgh Dementia Resource Centre hosts an afternoon for animal lovers to help those suffering with dementia and their carers. The one condition for participants being: you like dogs.

The facility has been organising the dementia dog sessions for around two years and the scheme is part of a national collaboration between charities and institutions which are keen to find innovative ways to cope with the growing health crisis.

The project has been backed by the Scottish Government and support groups such as in Helensburgh are taking advantage of the community canine-based approach.

Last week, Jeremy Hughes, Alzheimer’s Society CEO, said the UK is facing a "humanitarian crisis", with the number of people providing care at home for a loved one with dementia set to rise by almost one million within the next 15 years.

"The human cost is catastrophic," he said, "as people continue to lose their homes while helplessly watching their loved ones battle a disease without the help they so desperately need."

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Scotland's National Dementia Strategy, a report published by the Scottish Government in 2017, stated there were around 90,000 people living in Scotland with dementia.

By 2020 it is estimated that there will be approximately 20,000 new cases diagnosed each year. If those predictions are correct, that figure will have risen by almost a fifth in just six years.

Centres like the one in West Princes Street offer support for sufferers and respite for carers; a chance to temporarily relieve some of the stress associated with dealing with the myriad difficulties of dementia on a daily basis.

Community activities organiser Clare Stockwood says the dog days, along with other regular events, have become vital highlights on the caring calendar.

"We try and do a range of things because obviously not everyone is interested in dogs, and I’d like to think all our support groups and activities are a success.

"We have singing groups, a reminiscence group, a film group, basically if something doesn’t work we’ll try something different.

"We’ve had to tweak and adapt the dog days. It was quite regimented but we’ve found the best way of running it is when people want to come along, stroke the dogs, talk about dogs and have a cup of tea.

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"I’ve had people crying because they can’t have a dog anymore and it’s just so emotional that they can come and spend time with a dog. People relax, it’s something they know: they know dogs, they’ve had dogs, everyone who comes is interested in dogs and it just gives people something to talk about.

"It’s not a forced atmosphere, people are talking about a shared interest and people really open up and come out of their shells. That’s the biggest thing.

"Being with animals is very therapeutic anyway. It just works really well."

Paul Houghton moved to Helensburgh from London with wife Sandra in July.

Sandra, a former long-distance runner, has early Alzheimer's and Paul said the support on offer north of the border has been a huge bonus since their relocation.

"My daughter lives here," he explained, "and once Sandra wasn’t well she kept saying 'you’ve got to get closer to me'.

"But in all honesty, the support on offer in Scotland is so much better. In London we got absolutely nothing.

"Here Sandra is entitled to help with washing and dressing etc. I paid for that from day one in London, I had no option."

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The dementia resource centre, and particularly the monthly dog days, have been a godsend for the couple.

"For her it’s something to look forward to and it gets her out," Paul said.

"Sandra needs social interaction; the neurologists told me she could do all the mind puzzles under the sun but the best thing for her is to meet people and talk because it stretches you more.

"She’s always been physically active so she finds it very frustrating.

"We both love animals and she loves to come here, she just loves it."

The warm and welcoming atmosphere at the centre has brought benefits to both Paul and Sandra, but Paul maintains there is still a long way to go.

He added: "I’ve been told that it’s important for Sandra to mix with normal people, so to speak, as much as possible, not just other people with Alzheimer’s. It’s important just to meet people generally to try and maintain a sense of normality.

"I don’t get any respite at all, as nice as it is to come here I never do anything for myself, I haven’t done for 18 months now. There’s more support for carers here than there ever was at home.

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"There’s not enough provision and it’s important to lobby politicians and governments to ask what they are doing for dementia. It shouldn’t be up to charities like this to do it. They should be the little bit on the top."

For the volunteer pooches and their owners, too, there is much to be gained from taking part in the dog day initiative.

Susan Russell and her nine-year-old labradoodle Maisy have been coming along for around a year.

Susan said: "I used to work at the centre and I’m still in touch with the staff. I tried to set up the dementia dog days when I was here, and when they said they were starting a dementia dog café we got involved.

"I’d always had Maisy lined up to do that but she had to go through the Kennel Club training first.

"Because I realised the positive benefits of dogs I knew that this would work and that people would really like coming.

"Maisy is a therapet so we go to visit the dementia ward at the Vale [of Leven Hospital] once a month, just to do the same thing: meet people and let them touch the dog, talk about dogs and see if there’s any memories they have about their own dogs.

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"The therapeutic value of dogs is incredible and still probably untapped.

"Paul and Sandra had dogs all their lives and love them so they’re both getting something out of it and it's rewarding for me coming back in with Maisy and seeing the impact."

Fellow volunteer Anne Wheaton also enjoys seeing the noticeable positive effects on the centre's clients from spending time with her 10-year-old Lhasa Apso Mo.

She said: "It’s a nice environment, we’re all understanding and talk to the carers and it’s nice for them to have a cup of tea and a break.

"Mo was my mother-in-law Sheila's dog and she died two years ago. He was 24/7 with Sheila. He was very distraught and traumatised when she died.

"I was quite worried about Mo, being 10-years-old, eight when I got him, with the saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, but he sailed through the whole training. Dogs are so clever and easily trained.

"It’s nice for me to come here because my own parents had dementia, so it’s nice to come and give something back with Mo and get involved.

"It's becoming such a big thing in our society now and people need to be aware of it and understand people with dementia, they don’t always do that. We all could end up with it."

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