The Leeds widow cooking up support for younger people with dementia

Eugene Harris was just 62 when he was diagnosed with early onset dementia.

Diana Smith-Harris whose husband died of early onset dementia

The furniture upholsterer and musician died five years later.

Now his widow, Diana, has become the star of a new recipe book designed to help people living with the illness bring back positive memories inspired by their touch, taste and smell.

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Diana, from Leeds, is the cover star of Eating Well with Dementia, a recipe book packed with easy-to-make recipes and nutritional and practical advice approved by a registered dietician, alongside recipes that have been fully tested and approved by people living with dementia, their carers and their families.

Diana is featured on the cover of a cookery booked aimed helping dementia sufferers and their carers

The book was developed by Young Dementia Leeds, a community service which supports people living with the condition and their families – like Diana.

Diana got involved with Young Dementia Leeds after Eugene, was diagnosed with early onset dementia in 2016.

“Eugene was an upholsterer by trade. He was also a steel pan player and played in the Chapeltown Carnival in Leeds – that’s how we met. I was a singer and the band’s normal singer was on holiday so I went along to audition and the rest is history,” says Diana.

“He got diagnosed with early onset dementia in 2016, but I had known for a while that he was deteriorating.

Diana from Leeds has supplied some of her favourite recipes for the cookery book

“He had taken himself to the doctor to say ‘something is not right, I can’t remember things’. He was an upholsterer and was forgetting whose furniture he was making, what colours they wanted, mixing them up and not remembering the customers.

“Luckily our GP specialised in dementia and got the ball rolling for tests. It took 18 months but when they told us, I knew by then because he was forgetting more and starting to deteriorate.”

Diana, 61, who worked in child social care, was determined the disease would not stop them going out and living life to the full.

“In many ways the diagnosis was a relief. At least we knew what we were dealing with and could make a plan. We went to everything – Eugene used to joke ‘it’s fun, fun, fun with you’, but I was determined that we wouldn’t jut sit in and let this awful disease take its course,

Eugene Harris who was diagnosed with dementia aged 62

“So, we both started to attend the Young Dementia Leeds Hub. You need to be able to meet people going through the same thing as you. We’re all in the same boat so we support each other, and as new people come along, we support them too.”

Eugene was a keen walker and could often be seen around the streets of Oakwood, Leeds, where the couple lived.

“I had a tracker on his phone so I always knew where he was but then he started to have a few falls and we realised the time had come for him to go into a nursing home. He’d been in for respite care before so we knew he would be happy.”

But the pandemic meant Diana was unable to spend as much time with Eugene as she would have liked.

The cookery book which is raising funds and awareness of Young Dementia Leeds

“At the beginning of lockdown I would go and see him through the window but then when things started to lift I could visit him in the garden. But then he took a turn for the worse and died last year but I was able to be with him in hospital, which was lovely.

“I feel at peace for him. It is a terrible disease and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

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She was involved in cookery classes which have now led to a cookery book being published, with Diana on the front cover.

“We had a little bit of funding left after the cookery classes and got permission to put the recipes into a book, we even have one from Brian Turner, who is also on the cover.”

The Yorkshire-born celebrity chef has contributed a recipe for white chocolate and raspberry trifle to the book. “Eating well is about keeping healthy, but also about enjoyment and well-being,” he says. “This is a fantastic and valuable collection of recipes and advice for people living with dementia, and those supporting them.”

Liz Menacer, service manager at Young Dementia Leeds, said: “Eating well and maintaining good nutrition can be a real challenge for people living with dementia, as well as for their families and carers.

“But food can be a great way to bring back positive memories inspired by touch, taste and smell. Eating Well with Dementia offers a wide variety of recipes that are easy to cook and delicious to eat – from finger foods to classic favourites.”

Young Dementia Leeds is a service of the Inspire North Group, a charity which provides services in relation to mental health, well-being, housing and domestic abuse across the North of England.

Inspire North CEO Ruth Kettle said: “This book is an outstanding and valuable piece of work that should be a great help to people living with dementia, and their loved ones. I am so proud of our Young Dementia Leeds team who are always determined to go above and beyond providing our high-quality services, to ensure that the lives of our clients and their families are enhanced, and we are delighted to share their expertise for the benefit of a wider audience.”

In Leeds alone, there are around 8,000 people living with dementia and of that number, 300 to 400 people have early onset dementia, and they can be as young as 48 years-old.

Diana says she feels lucky that they were living in Leeds.

“We have great support here but I sit on national focus groups and know how lucky we are – it isn’t the same everywhere.”

Eating Well with Dementia is available to buy on Amazon for £14.99