This Christmas, the Herald is profiling 12 charities chosen to get a $12,000 grant from Auckland Airport as part of its 12 Days of Christmas giving programme – now in its twelfth year. The $144,000 comes from generous travellers who donate money in globes throughout the airport.

Dance instructor Aaron Gilmore may have won the reality show Dancing with the Stars twice, but he learned something new about movement from his partner Amrita Francis at Dementia Auckland's Still Me Gala Ball.

"Dancing with Amrita, I got to see a what a special place dance holds in someone's spirit. Although you could see her mind wander occasionally, the joy that dance held for her seemed to transcend what dementia clouded."

Amrita, a former music teacher, was diagnosed with Young Onset Alzheimer's at age 56. Despite problems with her short-term memories, her face lights up at the mention of last month's star-studded event.

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"The ball was great. I loved it – the feeling of getting dressed up. Aaron was lovely - a very nice guy. Sometimes I do get a bit frustrated and think, "Oh gosh, what am I doing?" I'm very lucky because my family take care of me and make sure I look smart," she says.

Mike McRoberts interviews (L-R) Sanesh, Amrita and Martin Francis at Still Me Gala Ball. Photo / Supplied
Mike McRoberts interviews (L-R) Sanesh, Amrita and Martin Francis at Still Me Gala Ball. Photo / Supplied

Amrita's husband Martin is her primary carer and their son Sanesh has moved back home to help.

The 22-year old grew up seeing his parents dance together. "Mum still remembers the steps. The problem for Aaron was that she always leads because dad has two left feet."

The couple dance once a week at a dance group in Pakuranga run by Dementia Auckland. Martin says the organisation has been a lifeline since Amrita was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia.

"When you first get that news, you're suffering a whole range of emotions - shock and grief. Amrita was still teaching. We were in a haze thinking, "How do we move through this?" The doctor was great at diagnosing but beyond that he didn't have much to offer. That's where Dementia Auckland came in. They were like our translator, our guidebook and road map. They showed us that it's still possible to live a full life with dementia," he says.

Dancing with the Stars judge Rachel White leads a dementia dance class in Pakuranga. Photo / Supplied
Dancing with the Stars judge Rachel White leads a dementia dance class in Pakuranga. Photo / Supplied

Dementia Auckland is one of twelve charities receiving $12,000 from Auckland Airport as part of it's twelve days of Christmas giving programme.

"Dementia Auckland is a central hub that connects you to all the services," says Martin. "They tell you about things you need like Enduring Power of Attorney. Through them we started Cognitive Stimulation Therapy and then dancing, which reopened the door for Amrita to begin playing the piano again. We also do walks at the Botanic Gardens on Tuesdays," he says.

Amrita says one of the hardest aspects of dementia is losing your friends. "We haven't seen these people for such a long time now. They haven't even come just to say, "Hi". You think, "Woah – this is weird."

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Through Dementia Auckland, the family have formed a new community. Martin and Sanesh attend a support group for carers of people with Young Onset Dementia.

"Often you're so busy coping you don't have a chance to stop and reflect on how you're feeling," says Martin. "At those groups you can be open. The people there know what you're going through. They understand the guilt or anger or resentment or fear. Often the box of tissues gets used up. We're able to offer each other emotional support and practical tips as well," he says.

Aaron Gilmore dancing with Amrita Francis at the Still Me Gala Ball in Nov 2019. Photo / Supplied
Aaron Gilmore dancing with Amrita Francis at the Still Me Gala Ball in Nov 2019. Photo / Supplied

Dementia Auckland leader Lisa Burns says an estimated 20,000 people in Auckland have dementia, but only about 2,500 access the charity's services because the need is much greater than the funding available.

Auckland Airport's general manager of corporate services Mary-Liz Tuck the $12,000 grant will be used to buy inmuRELAX devices, a soft cushion that uses music and tactile elements to help improve the quality of life of patients with advanced dementia.

"Auckland Airport is an organisation that cares about people in our community. We're extremely pleased that elderly people living with dementia will have access to new equipment to give them greater quality of life," she says.

Yesterday: Cochlear Implant Foundation