The Last Laugh

KATE SWAFFER was diagnosed with younger onset dementia seven years ago.

The day she was diagnosed, she was working fulltime, studying for a double degree, wrangling teenaged children, running a household, and still finding time to contribute to her community. 

‘Why then, the minute I was diagnosed, would I suddenly be unable to do anything?’ she asks.

Kate’s friend, psychiatrist Dr Mark Cross [Changing Minds , ABC], says those with a diagnosis of dementia are commonly told to go home, put their affairs in order and prepare to ‘deal with it’.

Kate remains entirely able to continue to attack life, and this feisty, funny woman will amply demonstrate this when she opens a major international comedy festival next year. She may not always remember a punchline, but it will be a performance no one will forget.

‘We in the medical world are not very good at dealing with dementia, post-diagnosis. In fact, it’s a bloody disaster,’ Mark says. 

He has good reason to be spooked by this impotence. Dementia runs in his family and he is an odds-on favourite to get it.

 Or he’ll just get it anyway. In Australia, it’s the second leading cause of death, and as he knows only too well, more than 350,000 people live with it, one in four hospital beds is occupied with those living with a dementia diagnosis, and 1.2 million carers look after them.

As Kate says, ‘There is a huge financial and social cost , not just on families, but on the nation. And, if we don’t start paying attention, it’s only going to get worse’.

So Kate and Mark are on a mission to find the best evidence for risk reduction, for slowing the onset of dementia, and hopefully, for a cure. It will be a fun, buoyant, life-affirming, sometimes confronting, but always compelling, treasure hunt across the planet. And we will follow their journey

The Last Laugh will reframe how we look at people with dementia.

Kate says that, ‘when you can get over the sadness [of diagnosis] and reclaim living again, then there’s loads of joy still to be had’.

  • Kate and Mark will visit dementia-friendly homes where people live very engaged, happy, and vibrant lives in a safe environment.
  • Kate will visit a village in Holland where there’s a ‘make-believe’ village with nurses acting as checkout chicks, and the world has stopped in 1950. She might not like it.
  • Mark will be taking a journey through the science – how close are we to a cure? what’s the current best-practice advice? and what does Kate think?
  • Kate will be getting advice from top comedy performers on how to hone her standup routine – she has many funny stories about the embarrassing and absurd places her dementia has taken her to, and she’s happy to laugh at it. But she’s not a natural performer, and getting up on a stage in front of a curious audience will push her to her limits.
  • Then they’ll both investigate how to help those of us who don’t have dementia, avoid it.
  • Simple, everyday tasks, such as taking a 20 minute walk every day and memorising two car number plates could, if all of the nation signed up, considerably reduce dementia rates, making Australia one of the first countries in the world to slow its growth.
  • They’ll start a campaign to get backing from politicians and peak bodies, and run into problems getting everyone on board.

Both are passionate about the cause and getting the conversation at least started. It’s much like cancer was 50 years ago – no-one wanted to use the ‘C’ word. Well, it’s time, they say, for the ‘D’ word to be embraced.

‘This is a hunt, if not for a cure, then at least a way of living with dementia that is more enjoyable and more exciting – not a death sentence from Day One,’ Mark tells us.

No-one wants to invest 90 minutes of their time watching a dreary film about something they don’t want to think about. So this film is a sparkling, laugh-out-loud, irreverent buddy movie. It’s rude, confrontational and has attitude. It’s changing minds about how we look at a ‘difficult’ subject, and it’s about time.