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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 November, 2004, 00:26 GMT
When brain disease changed Gran
by Claire Babbidge
BBC News

The recent abandonment of an Alzheimer's disease sufferer at an Essex hospital with a note saying "we cannot cope" led to intense debate in the media as to whether this was a callous or desperate act.

Friends of 82-year-old former pub landlord Ken Baker have now set up a fund to help pay for his care.

A generic picture of a man with an elderly woman
Alzheimer's disease can change someone's basic character

Whatever the answer is in this case, the pressure on those caring for someone with this degenerative brain disorder is a very real one.

There is no cure for Alzheimer's. As it develops, it destroys chemical messengers used by the brain cells to communicate with each other.

In time it can cause extreme confusion, distress and aggression - completely changing someone's basic character.

Alzheimer's turned my own grandmother Pat - known to us as Nan - from an energetic woman to one lost in her own distressing world.

I remember Nan as a loving woman who could not wait to have my brother and I to stay in our school holidays.

She would take us round the shops in Southampton, treating us to cream cakes, toys and magazines and unashamedly showing us off to her friends.

People still have to put pressure on and push and argue just to get an assessment
Alzheimer's Society's Clive Evers

Nan was also a bit of a gambler and loved to bet on the horses. She once had us all in front of the television, screaming for Red Rum to do her proud again.

Forgetful

As a teenager, I remember her being forgetful at times, but I put this down to old age.

I first realised there was a serious problem, not long after she had a hip operation following a fall when she was about 70.

On my visits from London, I noticed she was more frail and seemed to have lost her spark.

It is clear now that my grandfather was not telling us the extent of the problems and seemed to be in denial about her illness.

Clive Evers, Director of Information and Education at the Alzheimer's Society, said: "It is very common for a close relative or partner to cover up for someone who is affected."

He said the "stigma" still attached to dementia, not wanting to lose someone or fear of them going into a home are among reasons for this.

My mother Eve Street, recalls her mother-in-law's deteriorating health.

She said: "She would be just be sitting in a chair. She became quite morose and she seemed to lose interest in absolutely everything.

"The most amazing thing of all was that she became quite aggressive towards her husband, who had been the love of her life. "

Police calls

The next few months included night time telephone calls from the police to my parents - Nan had dialled 999 in a bewildered state as she was confused who her husband was.

Grandad even went through a stage of sleeping with his driving licence under the pillow in case the police turned up and he had to prove that this really was his home.

There were other worrying times. Nan went missing after visiting one of her sisters; was once driven home by a stranger and also badly burned her arm while cooking.

Mr Evers said: "The pressure on families is immense.

"Services have improved, relatively speaking, in the last five to 10 years but still have a long way to go to deliver what we would call quality services evenly-distributed around the country.

"People still have to put pressure on and push and argue just to get an assessment."

Crisis point

The crisis point in my own family came when Nan stayed with my parents when her husband was in hospital.

One night she did not take some medication which had been prescribed.

Mrs Street said: "That night she must have woken us up over 13 or 14 times. I begun counting in the end. We were totally exhausted. We just didn't know how to handle it.

"I remember washing her clothes when she stayed with us and then I realised how bad it had become.

" I discovered all burn holes from where she had started smoking again and had just let the ash fall."

'Treasured memory'

Mrs Street says among those terrible days there was one moment which "will be a treasured memory".

"I had given her a clean nightdress and tucked her into bed and she said ''you're a really good girl'. She was like she always had been. That is how I want to remember her."

Soon afterwards, Nan was taken into hospital to be assessed and the hospital decided she should be cared for in a residential home.

Nan's condition continued to go downhill, although she was often lucid about events from the distant past.

As is common, the disease caused her overall health to deteriorate. She died of heart failure, aged 72.

Mr Evers said over the last few years three drugs have become available which can help sufferers in 40% of cases where they are prescribed.

He said early detection of Alzheimer's can improve the chance of it being treated by the drugs available - so anyone seriously worried about memory loss should seek medical help early on.




SEE ALSO:
Alzheimer's disease
08 Jan 04 |  Medical notes
Test could spot Alzheimer's early
12 Nov 04 |  Science/Nature


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