As we have come to make developments and discover more about mental illness in the UK we must strive harder to support sufferers immediately from first diagnosis, understanding the seriousness of dementia and its implications. Paul Donovan explains how his father’s mental illness progressed and the treatment he received. He explains the impact this had on his family.

Hi mate, how are you? is a phrase that has stuck in my memory ever since my Dad said it on a visit to his care home. It offered a rare glimpse of what he used to be like.

My Dad suffered with dementia for some years and was in a home on the south coast. When any of the family visited, he sat occasionally acknowledging us but usually he sat fiddling with things. At its worst he appeared to be in a sort of torment.

The home concerned appeared good, the care assistants saw to his basic needs. He was incontinent. They did their best to stimulate responses and seemed very attentive but at the same time it was always difficult to escape the feeling that you were in God’s waiting room.

Before his diagnosis Dad was always very much in control. He had come up the hard way. The son of a postman he worked as a messenger in Mount Pleasant Post Office in London at the age of 14 and progressed in the Post Office before joining the Navy in the war. At the age of 19 he was flying a swordfish plane on and off aircraft carriers. He came down twice in the channel.

On leaving the Navy, after the war, he took a course and became a teacher. He met my mother working at a school called Kensington in East Ham, east London. He later became a deputy head and then a head of Elmhurst School in east London,  a school which is one of the biggest primary schools in the country. And he was a good father, who was always there for you and never happier than when with the family.

Dad first started to show serious signs of dementia around 2001 and it was a gradual decline since then. He became more withdrawn. The situation became a great deal worse in May 2004 and was followed by 18 months of a rapid drift downhill until he went into the first home. After that he went into two further homes before he died in August 2008.

It was difficult for the family looking on to see Dad in this state. We didn’t know how dementia sufferers felt. They may not be in torment at all, but off in their own world where they are very happy. It is something we will probably never know.

It is important to support people suffering with mental illness. One in four people suffer with some form of mental illness. Dementia effects 700,000 people in the country today. The condition does not get the attention it warrants. Just £50 million a year is provided for dementia compared to £600 million for cancer research. Tellingly on one documentary about the subject the point was made that cancer patients are not told to go away and come back later when the condition gets worse as has been the case with dementia sufferers.

Around 25 million people, or 42 per cent of the population, are affected by dementia through knowing a close friend or family member with the condition.  It is important that there is support for the carers. Looking after my Dad as he plunged deeper into dementia took its toll on my mother. She lives with the consequences. She is now very nearly blind, lives alone, supported mainly by family and local parish.

The Church has recognised the needs dementia sufferers and Caritas Social Action Network has led the way, making its DVD ‘It’s still me Lord’ and a guide for facilitators of discussions at parish level. The guide aims to make parishes places of welcome for dementia sufferers. Among the points focused on are:

  • Do we know about people with dementia and their caregivers?
  • Do we know about services available for people in our area?
  • How can we raise awareness of dementia in our parish or faith community?
  • Making contact with people with dementia and their care givers

Fortunately, the profile of dementia has increased due in part to the exposure it has received from celebrities like Fiona Phillips and Cliff Richard who have had relatives with the condition. The Alzheimers Society has also been excellent at raising the profile of the condition. Progress is being made, as more becomes known about dementia and with drug treatments becoming available. There is still much that needs to be done though.

Paul Donovan


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