Early diagnosis is essential for leading an active life

Barbara Dow'Picture Jane Coltman
Barbara Dow'Picture Jane Coltman

Don’t bottle it up – that is the theme of this year’s Dementia Awareness Week.

The aim is to encourage people to speak up if they or someone close to them think they may have the disease.

Al Dow'Picture Jane Coltman

Al Dow'Picture Jane Coltman

And if there is one advocate of this message, then its widow Barbara Dow, whose late husband Al was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2000.

The mother-of-two insists it is essential for people to seek an early diagnosis, believing it will help those affected access crucial support and continue to lead an active life.

Barbara, who volunteers for the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “For anybody who is worried, they must go to talk to their GP about it. If you get an early diagnosis, you can still carry on with a very active life, continue with hobbies and do what you want to do for as long as possible.

“Al and myself were keen ballroom and Latin dancers and we were able to continue to do that and win medals for another two years.

“If Al hadn’t gone for an early diagnosis, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.

“On top of this, getting an early diagnosis gave Al the confidence to make decisions, such as moving to be nearer family and looking at our financial situation.

“It is a difficult situation to be in. Some people think that they are just being forgetful because they are getting a bit older, while others may be frightened. But that is not the wisest way of going about it. There is no point being worried about it. Get it sorted out.

“There is no point in worrying about what might happen, everybody is different.

“If you get an early diagnosis, you get the support from your GP and all of the agencies can advise you and you get a lot of support as the illness continues.”

Barbara says that Al started to experience memory loss, such as forgetting why he had gone to the bank and not remembering where he had put his wallet.

Barbara added: “He had begun to get a bit concerned. We went to see the GP who didn’t quite appreciate our concerns. We went to the Alzheimer’s Society and they advised us to see a consultant. I can never thank the Society enough for that advice.”

Al, a former RAF Vulcan pilot and flying instructor, died five years after he was diagnosed with the condition. He was aged 73.

Barbara admits that life after his diagnosis was at times tough and frustrating – for both her and Al – but the couple also had a lot of happy times together, including a short-break at RAFA’s Rothbury House.

She said: “A lot of frustration builds up when you expect too much of the person with the illness. You have to tailor your activities to the person’s capabilities and you have to be careful that you don’t compromise that person’s dignity.

“The people who are the carers are the experts – you learn as you go along.”

Barbara also stressed the importance of having a strong support network around you.

She said: “We were extremely lucky that we had support from our neighbours.

“To have the understanding of friends and neighbours is important.

“Two of Al’s friends used to come round. They realised that there was no point in saying to Al, ‘did you have a lovely day yesterday?’ Al couldn’t remember that.

“But what they used to do was bring pictures of aeroplanes, which was a part of the life he had enjoyed before. Al also had an interested in the Celts and his friend managed to find a book about the Celts, so they could talk about the interests that he had.”

Dedicated Barbara has been an Alzheimer’s Society volunteer for a number of years, becoming involved following the loss of Al.

In 2012, she was honoured with a William Brooks Award. She travelled to the House of Lords, where she was presented with the prestigious accolade by Alzheimer’s Society supporter, Sir Michael Parkinson.

Barbara also joined the Acute Care Working Group which produced the leaflet This Is Me – intended to provide professionals with information about the patient to enhance the care and support given.

“It is a passport for good personal care,” she said.