Dementia is described as a set of symptoms which may include memory loss, mood changes and difficulties with communicating and reasoning. Sometimes they are caused when the brain is damaged by other diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies to name a few. Some people with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease may also develop dementia as a result of the disease progression.
Dementia is a progressive illness and how fast it progresses will depend on the individual person and what type of dementia they have. Each person will experience dementia in their own unique way. It is often the case that the person’s family and friends are more concerned about the symptoms than the person may be themselves.
I was surprised to read that there could be as many as 800,000 people in the UK with dementia. The majority of these people being over the age of 65 however, it can also affect younger people and as many as 17,000 people in the UK under the age of 65 are currently diagnosed with dementia.
In my opinion it is too easy to worry about things that may happen to us as we get older, I know this too well. There are days when I have difficulty with my memory, I can get to the top of the stairs and forget what I went up for or find things in the fridge that should be elsewhere. There are days when I can’t remember people’s names at work, how embarrassing, or when I go to the local shopping centre, I panic because I can’t remember where the car is parked. This memory loss is not dementia but too much stress in my life, not enough sleep and age, don’t we all wish we could turn back the clock!
Shortly after I left home as a young teenager my great granddad then aged 82 came to live with my parents and over time they started to recognize that he had the on-set of dementia. My granddad was a happy kind of chap in his middle aged year’s he liked to have a laugh and a dance after dinner and the odd glass of sherry. However, prior to living with us, his diet was heavy in saturated fat and he didn’t get much exercise. According to research a healthy diet low in saturated fats, low alcohol intake, plenty of fresh air and exercise and keeping the mind alert, all help with keeping dementia at bay.
We had decided that we would care for him at home, granted this was no easy task for my parents and in the end we knew it was the most comfortable place for him to be, surrounded by people that could care for him and make sure he was loved and safe. We knew there were plenty of local care homes that could accommodate his needs, but as both my parents worked from home, the choice was easy to make.
I re-call the conversations I had with my father about the mischief my granddad had managed to get up to. He tried to make a cup of tea one day by boiling some water in a pan on the electric cooker but forgot to turn the cooker off, how he didn’t set fire to the house we still don’t know to this day.
On another occasion he pinched my mum’s purse, let himself out of the locked front door early in the morning and decided he was going to buy some chocolate. Dressed in only his pyjamas and slippers he somehow remembered the way to the local shops, but by the time my parents had managed to catch up with him, they found him with three empty wrappers, covered in melted chocolate and a smile on his face. The glint in his eyes in these days was that of a young child care free and not a worry in the world.
In later years the severity of the dementia was taking its toll on him, he was unsteady on his feet and would often fall, he had forgotten how to use the toilet and required assistance or wouldn’t make it on time. He used to love my mother’s home cooking but now he could only manage puréed food off a spoon. The sadness in his eyes was too much to bear and some days he was unrecognisable.
He would become very agitated about changes to his daily routine for example, he would be waiting in the kitchen at one o’clock ready for his lunch but if my mum had been caught up on the telephone and was running late, he would start to shout ‘where’s my lunch?’ over and over.
He also became anxious about the darkness of night in his bedroom, so we had to leave the bedside table light on for him. He suffered with night terrors which would wake the whole house and then he couldn’t get back to sleep.
His walking was more like a shuffle and you could hear him shuffling in his slippers and shouting ‘Pat where are you?’ and she might be standing right behind him. After a period of time he had worn the carpet away on the landing from pacing back and forth so much. However, the pacing eventually stopped as he became less mobile and more chair bound.
I shall always remember the emptiness in his eyes in the last year, as though his life memories had been wiped away and there was nothing left but an empty shell. We will never know if he recognised by sister when he took his last breath, while she held him close to comfort him. We know as a family we cared for him, loved him and showed him the respect he deserved, despite him not knowing who we were most of the time.
If the unfortunate should happen and I develop dementia, my personal fear would be not being able to recognise the people that I love and hold dear and the memories I have safely stored, lost forever. Then again are they, will we ever really know what happens to our inner most thoughts when we suffer with Dementia, I suppose it is just a guessing game really.