By Greg Lewis
“Seventy-five per cent of my life I can keep in a normal context. I have to confess that the 25 per cent is my bogey man… It’s the place where I don’t like to linger for long.”
Those are the words of former Methodist minister Jim McWade.
His bogey man is the Alzheimer’s disease he has battled with since 2002.
He was given five years to live. Almost a decade on he is still going strong.
He lives in the moment. He paints and plays a little golf.
But he can no longer read or follow the news. He does not remember what he did last night.
The recent 10th anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks meant nothing to him. He had no memory of the day which was said to have changed the world.
It was the diagnosis of dementia which changed his world and that of his wife Maureen.
“We do know what the future holds but there’s nothing we can do about it,” says Maureen, a former nurse.
“We can’t change the pattern of this disease… Once you’ve had that diagnosis there is no turning back.”
For the last year, the Wales This Week team has been filming with Jim and Maureen. The couple talk with remarkable courage and clarity about the challenges posed by dementia.
As does Peter Oldacre, who cares for his wife Ann and tries to remember her as she was: “She was the girl that would go cartwheeling across the dance floor and, you know, be up at the first toot of the horn and still be wanting to go when everybody was ready to go home. She was just the life and soul of everything really. She would try anything once, absolutely bonkers but lovely.”
In 2005, aged just 57, Ann started showing signs of confusion and memory loss. In 2007 she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
The speed of her decline was rapid.
“Up until just over two years ago she was still walking and talking and in that two year period she’s stopped walking completely and in two years now, she hasn’t spoken a single word to me,” Peter explained when we visited him in January.
“And now, because she doesn’t communicate with me in any way, writing or speaking, I don’t have any real knowledge of quite what she knows. It’s really strange, you sort of ask her questions but I don’t get a reply. I used to get a thumbs up sometimes, but that’s, in the last six months, that’s disappeared as well, so you sort of hope really that you’re getting whatever it is right.”
We filmed with Peter and Ann again this month when they took part in the Alzheimer’s Society Memory Walk in Cardiff. It is now three years since Ann last spoke.
Peter’s description of the deterioration of the person he has loved for more than 40 years is heartbreaking.
Their stories represent a growing problem in our communities, with the Alzheimer’s Society estimating a dramatic rise in the number of us with dementia. Wales currently has an estimated 38,000 sufferers, and Ian Thomas, director of the Alzheimer’s Society in Wales, says: “What we are expecting to see is around about a 33 per cent increase in dementia by 2020.”
Bob Woods, professor of clinical psychology in the elderly at Bangor University, describes dementia as the “single largest issue that faces both the health service and social services in Wales”.
It’s a battle which the whole of society is facing. But people like Jim and Maureen, Peter and Ann, are at the forefront of it.
- Wales This Week: Living with Dementia, ITV Wales, Tuesday, September 27, 7.30pm
- Greg is a producer working on Wales This Week – you can read more from Greg at his own blog.