A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to attend the Alzheimer’s Europe conference at The Hague, in Holland. In the capacity of a student, it was my very first time in an international conference – a momentous occasion where I got the coveted opportunity to meet experts from all around the world. In addition to participating in various parallel sessions and engaging in a couple of symposia discussions, I was also able to share the nuances of my research journey with early career researchers. Furthermore, I helped clarify doubts and resolve ambiguities among their well-experienced counterparts. Palpably, it took me about a week to organise the notes taken during these two eventful long days, and undergoing the entire process undoubtedly enabled me to connect the dots of my wide-ranging experiences.
The 29th Alzheimer’s Europe conference was held in Holland from 23rd-25th October 2019. Notably, the venue was the World Forum, a spacious and easy-to-reach conventions centre at The Hague – capital of South Holland and the existing seat of the Dutch government. In the annals of history, The Hague is renowned for being the International City of Peace and Justice. The genesis of this title can be traced back to the late 19th century; since then, it has fostered/accelerated the development of a plethora of international organisations, embassies and courts buildings over the years. Nevertheless, the city offers more than just a vibrant, iridescent ensemble of flags of different nationality. Indeed, there is an incredible array of well-preserved theatres, museums and historical monuments. Looking back, I am convinced that there could not have been a better place than The Hague to hold this year’s conference, a welcoming and succour-inducing place where arts help facilitate the intersection of historical and political stances. At the end of the day, what is the utility of research if it cannot be leveraged as an open, safe and inclusive podium for creative, problem-solving work unfolding in a specific historical moment and influenced by a particular political agenda?
The conference was attended by a very diverse audience, including people with dementia and their family, early-career/senior researchers, health and social care professionals, policymakers, volunteers and staff from Alzheimer’s organisations, as well as representatives of industries delivering care services. Commencing with a plenary session on the issues surrounding diagnostic and post-diagnostic support, it then continued with parallel sessions offering talks on young-onset dementia, risk factors, trials and data quality/sharing. Moreover, plenty of space was afforded to (inter)national dementia strategies, experiences of people with dementia and their carers, the usage of technology in care, honest ruminations on the socio-economic impact of dementia, and the importance of developing dementia-friendly communities. Given that the key focus area of my research is the active involvement of people living with dementia and family carers in research, I benefitted from specific sessions more than others. Nevertheless, actively engaging with other significant topics made me realise how a more open and inclusive research community can respond proactively to individual needs and bring about the much-needed cultural change, all the while tackling stigma and promoting greater accessibility to quality care.
‘Making valuable connections’ was the theme emblematic of the research entertainment provided in the form of plenary or parallel talks, poster presentations, and special symposia. In particular, connections were encouraged among people living with dementia and their families, volunteers and staff from Alzheimer’s organisations, health and social care professionals, researchers as well as representatives of the industry sector. Recognising the visceral complexity of dementia and its concomitant impact on others, this year’s conference underpinned the importance of adopting a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach to the existing care challenges in order to adequately meet people’s needs. Also, the symbolic act of making people living with dementia not only speakers but also chair of symposia sent out a loud and clear message to the entire research community – no research about them can be done without them.
Why to participate?
I strongly believe in the importance of engaging proactively with experts who are passionate about dementia research and tend to focus on various aspects of its challenges, thus influencing the current research scenario in myriad positive ways. When I first decided to participate in this conference, I was sceptical and ambivalent about its usefulness for me at this stage of my research. However, the enriching experience of being exposed to such a vibrant, diverse, unique and stimulating environment for two long days added new layers of knowledge, challenged my long-held assumptions, and made me discover new resources, and generate new ideas. Furthermore, my passion and mental fortitude inspired me to consult stakeholders, particularly those influencing my area of research in the role of advocates, funders or policymakers. Irrefutably, there is a lot to gain if you follow your instinct and are courageous enough to put yourself out there in the arena.
Connecting the dots
My experience at The Hague was highly informative and enlightening; it challenged my myopic assumptions; it broadened my horizons; it addressed many ambiguities arising from data analysed to date. In addition, it made me discover research of top-notch quality being undertaken worldwide. Most importantly, participating in this event has enabled me to achieve a rather underrated endeavour – ‘Making valuable connections’ in the interest of people living with dementia along with their families and/or formal carers. Hopefully, over the course of the next eleven months, I will be able to lay down a stable foundation to start ‘Building Bridges’ in Bucharest, Romania (30th Alzheimer’s Europe conference).
Ester Bellavia is a Alzheimer’s Society funded, PhD candidate at Newcastle University. Currently conducting a research aiming to explore the role of Patient and Public Involvement in dementia research and explain how best to involve people living with dementia and family carers. A basketball player and fan, originally from Italy with a background in nursing both overseas and within the NHS, where she also completed an NIHR funded MA in Research Methods at the University of Nottingham.