Blackburn has the highest diagnosis rate for dementia in the North West. Carol Donnelly spoke to IRMA HEGER about her late mother’s battle with the disease.
Seeing Marjorie Kay succumb to dementia was heart-breaking for her only child, 61-year-old Carol Donnelly, who now lives with and looks after her elderly dad at the neat family bungalow in Dale View, Blackburn.
Before that, she brought up her two daughters alone — her husband died in a car accident, which meant she became a widow in her mid-30s with children aged three and six.
“You get through it,” said Carol, who has clearly had a lifetime of looking after others, including those she taught as a high-flying teacher until her retirement two years ago. The first indication something was amiss with her mother was when Marjorie caught the bus back home from Blackburn town centre one day, but forgot where to get off. She ended up in Darwen, and the driver had to bring her back.
A GP appointment and tests at the Memory Clinic at Blackburn Infirmary later, the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was in place.
“Mum would often be in tears and get very upset, and she’d avoid certain situations such as eating, as she found using a knife and fork difficult. Eventually, we started to feed her.
“We used to play board games but she could no longer follow the game so she also avoided that. She would behave in an impolite or bizarre way and do things that would be out of character.
“One Christmas dinner my son-in-law’s mother asked her to pull a cracker with her, and my mum just said: ’No’, as though she was the last person on earth she’d pull a cracker with. Normally, she’d have thought that was great fun.”
Sadly, any hopes of delaying the disease were dashed as Marjorie could not tolerate the prescribed medication. After much soul-searching the family decided to stop the drugs so Marjorie at least didn’t feel physically sick every day.
“Alzheimer’s is one of those things that almost tears families apart,” said Carol. “You’ve got somebody who was very fun-loving, articulate and caring, who did everything, who becomes somebody who can’t do anything and needs everything doing for them. My dad bore the brunt of it — he had to do everything while I was at work.”
Yet it was hard on Carol, too. She would get up before 6am, care for her parents, walk the dog, feed the birds, work all day, and come back in the evening to do it all over again.
“You never knew what you would face,” said Carol. “Sometimes mum would get up in the night and take all the clothes out of the wardrobe, or she’d try to make a cup of tea and pour the water into the sugar caddy rather than the cup.”
Eventually, Carol realised her dad — an 87-year-old retired bank manager — could not cope alone. With no room left in the bungalow, she bought a little touring caravan, parked it in the garden and rigged up a bell system to the bungalow. For nearly ten months, Carol lived there — often arriving at work not having slept.
“There was care available, but my dad didn’t like having strangers in the house. We were a very close family, but things became not very pleasant. They had an excellent marriage, but my mum and dad would be at one another’s throats — they both got very frustrated.
“I had the fear I would come home one day and one would have done something to the other.
“There was a lot of anger involved and I was very, very worried.”
Eventually, Marjorie moved in Old Gates Residential Care Home in Blackburn. Three months later, having lost the ability to swallow, she choked, resulting in pneumonia. In February 2010, she died at the age of 81.
“She forgot how to live, how to do the basic functions,” said Carol.
“She also did seem to regress through her life and she no longer understood what was real or what’s imagined — one time she was convinced she was actually in labour.
“In the end, she became very quiet but she recognised me until three weeks before she died.”
Carol decided to use her experiences and become a volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Society.
She said: “Support in Blackburn is improving continuously and awareness is increasing.”
Sad toll of distressing condition
- Dementia is a term used to describe a collection of symptoms including memory loss, problems with reasoning, communication skills and carrying out daily activities.
- Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia.
- In 2012, 779 patients were diagnosed with dementia in Blackburn with Darwen.
- The total number of people thought to suffer from dementia in this area is 1291
- 60.3 per cent of dementia cases have been diagnosed in this area — the highest rate in the North West.
- The average UK diagnosis rate is 46 per cent. East Riding of Yorkshire has the lowest rate (32 per cent) and Belfast the highest (75 per cent)
- One in three people over 65 will die with dementi
- Alzheimer’s Society research shows that 800,000 people in the UK have a form of dementia
- By 2021 a million people will be living with dementia in this country
- - Alzheimer’s Society Helpline can be reached on 0300 222 1122 or www.alzheimers.org.uk