Rose wanders up and down the corridors of the nursing home for hours on end, her feet moving in small, shuffling steps; her expression vague, almost eerie. Her speech is no longer coherent, but she attempts to explain that she has “to go home”, because her “mother will worry” about where she is.
Rose is 73 years old, and is one of the 800,000 people diagnosed with dementia in Britain (although it is approximated that 400,000 unknowingly have the disease). People assume dementia is merely age-related memory loss, but Rose is incontinent because she has forgotten how to use the bathroom. She cries at the sight of her own faeces, as she no longer understands what faeces are. Rose also cannot remember her husband, children, or grandchildren. Yet, despite the inability to remember the present, many dementia sufferers only remember a fragment of their life – for example, a time when they were children, or early on in their marriage, etc. Tragically, Rose remembers the most traumatic part of her life, and now believes that her heartbroken granddaughter is her sister, and that her husband is her abusive father, causing her to wake up in the middle of the night, screaming in terror, in the belief that her father is “coming to get [her]”.
Rose’s story comes to light just as today’s news reports on former England footballer Gordon Banks’ and Sir Michael Parkinson’s accounts of their personal experiences with dementia, as part of a new campaign launched in the UK to drive dementia awareness.
Despite the stigma that the news reports on today, very few understand the severity of the disease and the impact on lives. Not only are sufferers stigmatised by friends who often abandon them in their fear of being in the company of a mentally ill person, but there is often some harrowing ridicule of dementia sufferers within society in general.
Only a few evenings ago, a visit to my local supermarket was a reminder of this. I was appalled to witness two members of staff at the supermarket, laugh at an old man who is suffering with the disease. I see the old man is at the supermarket almost every evening, and recognise that he is still at a relatively early stage of the disease whereby he can occasionally visit the supermarket by himself (although is usually supervised by his wife). He regularly forgets an item he needed, and is often circling around the small store for an hour at a time. The other night, he would continuously arrive at the check-out only to subsequently shuffle over to another area of the shop, upon realising he had forgotten biscuits, or cheese, etc. The two male staff at the check-out would make “loopy” gestures behind his back, and sniggered rudely as the old man left/returned to the checkout for the umpteenth time.
Similar behaviour was experienced by my own grandmother, whom my mother and I were joint-carers of, and it never ceased to amaze us how ignorant and cruel people can be to a person they think of as being just “a crazy old woman/man”. It was also a harsh reminder as to how society so cruelly stigmatise those who are mentally ill. Remember, the mentally ill are human beings, too.
Perhaps society needs reminding that dementia could affect pretty much any person. Although the disease is generally considered an “old person’s disease”, it has also been known to affect people as young as 30. The Alzheimer’s Society reports that there are over 17,000 people under the age of 65 in the UK, who are sufferers of dementia. Researchers have yet to find a cure, and can still only speculate upon many of the potential causes of dementia, although some faulty genes have been identified, and in some rare cases the disease can also be inherited.
Let me introduce you to Claude. You may of heard of him.
This is Claude Shannon, the person to whom you can attribute the founding of electronic communications age, and is a person whom you can now thank for enabling you to be able to use a computer and read this post. Claude died of Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common form of dementia, in 2001; completely unaware of the significance of his scientific discoveries going on around him.
Despite this Nobel prize winner’s remarkable intelligence and achievements, the disease nevertheless took his mind from him too.
Any person who sees humour in a person suffering with dementia, should be grateful that they still possess their own mental health. Our brains are central to who we are; yet, the brain can be so fragile and so vulnerable to disease, regardless of our character, strength, or intelligence. The heartbreaking effects of dementia could potentially affect us, or our families.
Despite the disease becoming increasingly more prevalent, Dementia is one of the most underfunded areas of research, with eight times less invested in dementia research than cancer research. However, Dementia is reported to be ahead of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and stroke one for being one of the main causes of disability later in life. Furthermore, the Alzheimer’s Society reports that more than 24 million people have dementia in the world today, with the numbers affected predicted to double every 20 years to more than 80 million by 2040.
If, like me, you are also interested in supporting the research of dementia, you might be interested in this page.
If only every person from the UK could donate £1 to the research of dementia, that would amount to a total of around £62,000,000, which could make a big difference to all our families.
(Please note: This post was not endorsed by any Alzheimer’s charities)