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Honorary MBE for Bradford academic who led research on dementia care


Emeritus Prof Murna Downs

Emeritus Professor Murna Downs from the University of Bradford has been awarded an honorary MBE in the New Year’s Honours List in recognition of her services to the social sciences.   

Prof Downs’ leadership in the social science of dementia focuses on improving quality of life and quality of care for people living with dementia and their families. Her contributions are wide ranging, encompassing both theoretical and empirical explorations of the experience of living with dementia across the spectrum, from diagnosis to end of life care.   

She has advanced research in person-centred dementia care, having been at the forefront of meaningful collaboration with people with dementia, family members and health and social care professionals, ensuring their expertise informs studies of how to improve care and services.

Highest accolade

She was the force behind the University of Bradford’s 2015 award of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its leadership in developing person-centred dementia care, and for influencing dementia policy and practice in the UK and internationally. This prestigious accolade honours world-class excellence and achievement. It is the highest form of national recognition that UK higher education institutions can achieve.

Prof Downs said: “I feel very proud to have been given this honorary MBE award but I think ultimately it’s a tribute to the university because it shows that it provided a fertile environment for social science research to make a significant contribution to improving the care and services for people living with dementia and their families. 

“When I first came to the university, it had already made a significant positive impact on improving care practice through its practice development observational tool, ‘Dementia Care Mapping’, used by care practitioners to observe the person’s experience of care and, where necessary, to change their care practice.

“I have always sought to ensure that social research on dementia and dementia care has a direct and positive impact on care practice and services for people living with dementia and their families.”

Flair and charisma

Long-term colleague Prof Jan Oyebode, Chair in Dementia Care in the Faculty of Health Studies, described this focus on the potential of social science to enhance the lives of people living with dementia as a watershed moment in dementia care. 

“It used to be that once you were diagnosed with dementia, you no longer had a voice but that has now changed, and much of that is thanks to Murna. Murna led the field in using social research methods to learn about the perspective and experience of people living with dementia and their families in order to improve their care and services. 

“Her flair and charisma enabled her to do research that carried beyond academia into the world of care - this award recognises that.” 

University of Bradford Vice-Chancellor Professor Shirley Congdon said: “This award rightly recognises Murna’s clear passion and commitment to using research to improve the lives of people living with dementia and their care and services. Not only has her research identified how best to care for people living with dementia and their families, but she has also created a legacy that continues to influence dementia care research to this day.”

Making knowledge work

Throughout her career, Prof Downs has sought to disseminate research findings beyond the dusty academic shelves to people living with dementia, their families and health and social care professionals. She has presented keynote addresses at numerous national and international conferences, inspiring care staff and health and social care professionals with findings from social research on dementia. 

Alongside traditional academic routes of publishing in peer-reviewed journals and service on journal boards such as Dementia, the International Journal of Social Research and Practice and the Journal of Ageing and Mental Health and the Journal of Dementia Care, she is series editor for the accessible, evidence-based practice guides for dementia care practitioners, published in collaboration with Jessica Kingsley. She is co-editor of two editions of the highly commended textbook Excellence in dementia care: Research into practice.  

She has championed specialist evidence-based training and education in dementia care for health and social care professionals, leading to the University of Bradford being at the forefront of offering undergraduate and postgraduate awards in dementia studies, by distance learning, as well as developing a suite of online training modules and ‘train the trainer’ programmes for national care providers. 

With Professor Jan Oyebode, she directed the University of Bradford Alzheimer’s Society funded Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) on Transitions in Dementia Care and Services. Further studentships have been added to this highly successful DTC which will continue into the future after the original funding has expired.

Policy and research

Prof Downs has made contributions to international strategic and advisory panels for dementia research, policy and education, through her collaborations with colleagues in Europe, Australia and the US.  She has provided sustained input to national strategy on dementia, dementia research and on preparation and support for the health and social care workforce.  For example, as a long-standing member of the Alzheimer’s Society (UK) Research Strategy Council she successfully championed the need for increased research funding for social research in order to improve care for people living with dementia and their families.  

A psychologist, Prof Downs was Director of the Centre for Applied Dementia Studies at the University of Bradford (taking over from the late eminent psychologist Professor Tom Kitwood) for 17 years from 2000 until 2018 when she stood down to concentrate more on research. The centre is a leading light in research, education, training and consultancy in dementia care. She has already been recognised as an outstanding leader in the social science of dementia having been awarded fellowship of the Gerontological Society of America in 2015 and receiving the British Society of Gerontology Outstanding Achievement award in 2018.  

Prof Downs, who was born in Ireland, was awarded an honorary MBE as part of the UK’s ‘Honorary Awards to Foreign Nationals’.

Although she retired from the University two years ago, she continues as a Professor Emeritus in Applied Dementia Studies.