IF Barbara Clarke’s parents had not both suffered from dementia it’s likely that her career would have taken a very different path.

Sadly, they both did but the positive legacy meant Bolton gained a dedicated campaigner for better services for people living with dementia and their carers because Barbara knew first-hand what was needed. Today, she is chief officer of Bolton Dementia Support.

Barbara was brought up in the strong community of Hall i’th’ Wood in the ‘60s and her early memories are all of a warm and happy family life.

Her family later moved to Bromley Cross and Barbara attended Smithills Grammar School where she enjoyed sciences.

When she left school at 18, she got a job with Salford Council working on conveyancing around Compulsory Purchase Orders. This involved her going out and about visiting some of Salford’s poorest areas.

“Even though we hadn’t had much money growing up, I was still shocked at some of the conditions that people lived in,” she stated.

She left to take a teacher training degree at Manchester College before going to Finland for a while with a Finnish boyfriend.

The pull of home, though, was too much and she returned to Bolton.

She began working for Salford County Council in its courts dealing with everything from debts to divorce and, without really thinking about it, quietly developing her social conscience.

She married at 25 and went to live close to her family’s home. When her two sons were born, Barbara returned to working in the evenings only, becoming a house parent at Birtenshaw School where she stayed for 20 years.

In 1998, she was recruited by Bolton Council to set up a series of local support groups for carers in a three-year pilot project, based at The Thicketford Centre in Tonge Moor.

At the same time, her father was diagnosed with Lewy Bodies dementia - a type of dementia that shares symptoms with both Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

“I’d never really come across dementia first-hand before and I thought I could tackle it with common sense,” recalled Barbara.

“But I soon realised that it needed much more than that. For instance, Dad often hallucinated and it must have been very frightening for him.”

As fate would have it, the dementia masked the fact that he was suffering from advanced prostate cancer and he died from this in 1999.

“It was very sad but I did think, ‘well, I’m done with dementia now’,” added Barbara, “Then my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”

As many people have found, caring for someone with any form of dementia can be extremely challenging and draining physically and emotionally. It was also upsetting.

“I lost count of the times Mum wandered off around the streets,” she said.

In her new role in the dementia support field, Barbara brought not only the organisational skills honed in other posts but also a rare insight into what caring for someone with dementia meant on a daily basis. She understood the isolation and the helplessness that carers can experience and could help to fill the gaps.

The support groups grew into Bolton Dementia Support with a staff of two, trustees and a committee plus a small but effective band of volunteers.

Today, the service offers regular weekly memory cafes in various venues providing relaxed and friendly sessions for people living with dementia, their families and carers. Here, there is the opportunity for support, sharing experiences and coping strategies.

There is a carers’ support group meeting each week at three local venues, reminiscence projects and a wealth of support. The charity also has its own shop on Bury Road, near Ainsworth Lane, and Barbara works there each Saturday.

“It’s lovely when people come in for a chat and they often ask about advice and support relating to dementia so we can help them as well,” she said.

While Barbara knows that dementia is now a major modern problem, she believes that Bolton is a town that is working well for people living with dementia and their families.

There are around 3,000 people with dementia in Bolton and probably the same number of carers but there are also various dementia-friendly initiatives in local business and good awareness of what dementia really means to individual families.

“But we are always learning new things about dementia and that’s how it should be,” she added.

“We just want more people to show understanding and patience when they’re dealing with people with dementia.”