Dementia is both unforgiving and horribly cruel. It destroys people with merciless efficiency, dismantling their minds piece by piece.
And watching someone you love go through it is a unique kind of torment.
They are there … but not there. You are powerless, and can only watch as they slip away slowly to an unknown place where you cannot follow.
Scott Mitchell, husband of one of Britain’s best-loved actresses, Barbara Windsor, spoke movingly this week of the difficulties of living with someone in the throes of dementia. Dame Barbara, now 81, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2014.
Scott Mitchell, husband of one of Britain’s best-loved actresses, Barbara Windsor (pictured together), spoke movingly this week of the difficulties of living with someone in the throes of dementia
In an TV interview to publicise his taking part tomorrow in the London Marathon, alongside cast members from EastEnders — his wife played Queen Vic landlady Peggy Mitchell between 1994 and 2016 — to raise money for the charity initiative Dementia Revolution, Scott spoke of his wife’s ‘horrible moments of confusion’, which he described as heart-breaking, and her utter reliance on him.
‘She knows who I am, and I’ve become quite a focal point,’ he explained.
‘In the confused moments, she’ll look at me and say “As long as I can see you, I know something is OK” even if she doesn’t place the house or room.’
Scott and Barbara have been married for 19 years and his words are testament to the power of love: an acknowledgement that, despite the disease taking so much, their bond is still a source of comfort to Dame Barbara.
But they also lay bare what an incredible responsibility it is for one person to shoulder: to know that when someone is acutely distressed, confused and disoriented, their only source of solace is your presence.
It is a burden that tens of thousands of carers bear willingly, 24/7, but we should never underestimate the pressure that they are under.
If someone like 56-year-old Scott finds the emotional turmoil draining, just think how difficult it must be for often frail, elderly partners with limited resources or no family network to call upon?
Scott and Barbara have been married for 19 years and his words are testament to the power of love: an acknowledgement that, despite the disease taking so much, their bond is still a source of comfort to Dame Barbara
They work tirelessly, out of a sense of love and duty, to look after often fractious and distressed individuals, with little respite. Without them, the NHS would fall apart under the demands of caring for dementia sufferers.
Yet the physical and emotional cost to carers is high, and it is inevitable that their selflessness can take its toll.
I have witnessed this frequently. I remember one old lady — I’ll call her Mrs Maddox — who’d been doing her weekly supermarket shop when she developed chest pains and collapsed.
When she arrived in A&E, the ambulance crew told me she was anxious and kept asking: ‘Who will look after Manuel?’
Mrs Maddox had suffered a heart attack, but when I explained to her that she would be admitted to the cardiac unit, she shook her head. ‘What about Manuel?’ she asked again. ‘I can’t come into hospital, I have to look after him.’
We established that Manuel was her 85-year-old husband. He had advanced Parkinson’s disease and dementia, and could do nothing for himself.
At 83, his wife ran their home and attended to all his needs. There was no other support.
Mrs Maddox wasn’t worried about herself but only about how her health problems would affect him. Without his wife there as a reassuring constant in his day, he would become even more confused and scared.
It was a heartrending situation, but she was my patient and she was in need of help — and that had to take precedence. I told her she had to stay in hospital and we would let social services know about her husband.
She agreed — eventually — and next morning when I visited her on the ward, she told me she’d had her first uninterrupted night’s sleep for eight years.
When she was discharged, we arranged for regular respite care to be put in place. Yes, it was difficult for her husband at first but those with dementia can learn to be reassured by regular visits from others.
Respite care is a vital part of the social welfare system if we are to support Britain’s quiet army of carers. We need to make it more widely available and to publicise it.
We must never forget that the carers need caring for, too.
Greta Thurnberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist, has scarcely been out of the headlines this week.
There’s no doubt that she’s an inspiration but I worry about her becoming a poster girl for what is known as autistic spectrum disorder.
Greta has Asperger’s, a form of autism, and talks about it as a ‘gift’ that has helped her focus on climate change.
Swedish environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg addresses politicians, media and guests at the Houses of Parliament on April 23
However, her eloquence and intellect are not typical of people with autism, many of whom are profoundly disabled by their condition.
Having worked with autistic patients, I know how devastating it can be. We should not lose sight of the fact that Greta is the exception not the rule.
A little respect goes a long way
Most employees want hugging and kissing in the workplace banned, according to a new survey.
A third of participants said they had experienced ‘awkward’ greetings with colleagues. Many ended up trapped in an unwanted hug or as the recipient of a misdirected ‘airkiss’ that ends up on the mouth. They say that not knowing what is expected of them leaves them feeling stressed.
Yes, modern etiquette can certainly be a minefield.
Most employees want hugging and kissing in the workplace banned, according to a new survey (stock image)
Personally, I deplore the trend for ‘assumed intimacy’. This can happen even with new acquaintances, and has us embracing people before we’ve so much as been properly introduced to them!
But unnecessary physical contact aside, what is worse is the insistence that we must all be on first-name terms. It is endemic in the healthcare and social care systems.
I think there’s something wholly disrespectful about bawling ‘Mavis, it’s tea-time’ across the day room of a nursing home at a resident old enough to your great-grandmother.
Personally, I like addressing patients by their title and surname. It confers instant respect and establishes a suitable emotional distance for both parties. Healthcare professionals should never make the mistake of thinking that to be caring, they also have to be overly intimate.
Infertility and the women sold a lie
Sally Cheshire, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), warned this week that older women are being exploited by some IVF clinics which are ‘trading on hope’.
These unscrupulous institutions extract large sums of money from desperate women for whom there are minimal chances of a successful conception. She accused them of using ‘selective success rates’ to target older women.
Infertility was once a lifelong state. Couples could adopt or remain childless (stock image)
Four decades on from the birth of the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, there could not be a more damning indictment of some parts of the lucrative IVF ‘industry’ — which is what it has become.
Infertility was once a lifelong state. Couples could adopt or remain childless. Now, IVF seems to hold the promise of women ‘having it all’.
High-profile women who have given birth in their late 30s and 40s, whether naturally or by IVF — Alex Jones, Mylene Klass, Halle Berry (pictured) — unwittingly help cement this myth
They can focus on career and relationships in their 20s and 30s and then, when they’re ready, science will help them to defy the biological odds and have a child.
High-profile women who have given birth in their late 30s and 40s, whether naturally or by IVF — Alex Jones, Mylene Klass, Halle Berry — unwittingly help cement this myth.
But women have been sold a lie. Having a child is not a right but a biological privilege, and one with a tight time frame. Delay is at a woman’s peril.
Science may allow us to improve the odds slightly, but it’s far more limited than many in the IVF industry would have us believe.
Among women aged 42 to 43, just 3 per cent will end up with a baby. For those over 44, the success rate is just 1 per cent.
Those are poor odds for something so costly and emotionally draining. The harsh but honest message is that IVF rarely works for older women.
Classic FM’s new Revision Hour — a combination of soothing music and revision tips for stressed students — is a brilliant innovation.
There is some evidence that classical music can help boost the memory, and it’s certainly not as distracting as listening to songs!
I used to revise for my finals with pop music blaring from the radio, which really wasn’t ideal. Nearly 20 years on, I can still recall all the lyrics of the tunes that got stuck in my head while I was memorising long lists of facts about the human body.
One of them, fittingly, is Can’t Get You Out of My Head by Kylie Minogue. Whenever I hear it played, I find myself mentally running through the detailed anatomy of the hand!
Dr Max prescribes… Growing Pains by Dr Mike Shooter
This book is by a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a leading expert in child mental health.
Through fascinating case studies, Dr Mike Shooter explores issues such as grief, bullying, family breakdown and self-harm.
It’s a compelling and fascinating glimpse into his career, but is also full of insights into the minds of children, the struggles of growing up and the challenges of parenting.