Alzheimer’s has touched the lives of tens of thousands of Wearsiders. Today, as the Alzheimer’s Society steps up its new Dementia Friendly Communities initiative, the Mayor of Sunderland talks to CRAIG THOMPSON about his personal experience of the disease.
“MAM suffered from Alzheimer’s for about 12 years and it was heartbreaking to see.”
Bob Heron, Sunderland’s Mayor, spends his days supporting charities, community groups and organisations across Wearside.
But today he is lending his voice to the Alzheimer’s Society as they step up their Dementia Friendly Communities initiative.
Bob knows only too well the devastating impact Alzheimer’s can have on a family.
He said: “Mam was 94 when she died - but she was still “mam”.
“By the end, she didn’t recognise us. She became a shell of her former self which was a crying shame. She was asking for her own brothers and sisters all the time. It was so sad.”
Bob’s wife, and Sunderland Mayoress, Juliana Heron, was left devastated by the decline of her mother-in-law, known to all as Nelly. She lived Peat Carr Estate in Hetton.
Juliana said: “I always felt Alzheimer’s was one of the cruellest illnesses you could have.
“Bob’s mam had a hard life, bringing up seven boys and one girl in an old two-up, two-down miner’s cottage. But she had her latter years, when she should have been enjoying herself, stolen by dementia.
“She should have had a nice, long retirement but, because of Alzheimer’s she didn’t know about it.
“It was really cruel because she’d battled through in tough conditions and yet she ended her life not knowing what was happening.”
Bob, who represents the Copt Hill ward on Sunderland City Council and is also a member of Hetton Town Council, said that the family used humour to cope with his mother’s dementia.
“My mam was nice and quiet, unless you did something wrong. She remained a really nice motherly figure as she got older.
“She was always gentle even when she had Alzheimer’s and we coped with it through humour. A new rapport developed.
“We would go in to her house, knowing she’d just been out, and ask her about the trip and she’d always said “I’ve never been past the door” and she’d still have her coat on. You had to laugh.
“There were certain things she had to have including a set of keys and money in her purse. My brother used to say ‘well come on Mary, I need some money’ and she’d always say “I haven’t got anything”.
“We’d joke on. If we didn’t have that humour you’d pull your hair out. There were no long-term connections but those moments would keep her going. She eventually stopped talking and that was particularly sad.”
In a bid to help the charity, Mr Heron is raising money for Alzheimer’s Society during his year in office in memory of his Nelly who died in 2004.
He was speaking as the society launched its ‘Building dementia-friendly communities: A priority for everyone’ report which shows that people with dementia feel trapped in their own homes.
A dementia-friendly community is a city, town or village where people with dementia are understood, respected, supported, and confident they can contribute to community life. Bob, a former colliery fitter, believes the Hetton mining community where his mother lived set an example for dementia-friendly communities to follow.
He said: “The people in the area all did their bit to look after mam. It was a close-knit place.
“They might have been separated by bricks and mortar but they were together in so many ways. They looked out for each other on my mam’s cul-de-sac
“They all knew she had Alzheimer’s and they looked out for her. If she went out of the house without locking the door someone would be there to remind her. It was a dementia-friendly community. People in places like that were ahead of their time.
“Living in a mining community, it was what we expected – care from our neighbours.
“There might not be a cure for dementia on the horizon but we can take steps to get the environment right for people with the condition.
“There was an amazing community spirit within the mining communities and I suppose we took for granted that level of care people showed to each other.
“If people know there is someone with Alzheimer’s living near them, they will know what to do should they find them wandering the streets.
“That’s what happened with mam when she was seen out in the middle of night with her nightdress on and she was taken back home.”