Use it or Lose It!

March 12, 2013

When it comes to protecting the brain, it’s thought that certain lifestyle factors may help your brain to stay healthy. Neuroscientists suggest that by keeping your mind active, taking exercise and maintaining social interactions, you can help to reduce your risk of developing dementia.

The brain is a learning machine. To keep it strong, you must continually develop new skills. In other words… keep pushing those boundaries!

upgrade brain

Here are seven ways to keep your brain active and healthy as outlined by Prof Ian Robertson, Professor of  Psychology at Trinity College, Dublin…

1. Physical Fitness: Take aerobic exercise… exercise that gets your pulse racing a bit. Fast walking for 20-30 mins a day, is good for your brain and your heart. If you’re not used to taking regular exercise, get checked out by your doctor first. 

2. Mental stimulation: Do something new and engaging… maybe volunteering. Find something you love doing. Engage with other people. This is a critical protective factor.

3. New learningWe get lazy as we get older. We should all be constantly learning. Learn a language/learn to sing/improve your computer skills.

4. Reduce stress: A bit of stress is not a bad thing. Challenge is good for us… pushing the boundaries. However, prolonged and severe stress is detrimental to brain function. Find a method to reduce stress… music/self-help books/yoga/meditation/relaxation.

5. Keep socially active: The denser a person’s social network, the less likely they are to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Other people are a source of enrichment of the brain. Maintain social contacts.

6. Eat a healthy diet: What’s good for your heart is good for your brain. Eat fish (omega 3)/veg/fruits (richly coloured) and keep to a low saturated fat diet.

7. Think and behave young: How you behave and act, feeds back into your brain and changes it. Don’t adopt the behaviours of being old… stooped posture etc. Stand upright and think and behave younger than you are.

You can listen back to *Marian Finucane’s interview with Prof Ian Robertson here.

*Marian Finucane… RTE Radio 1, Saturday/Sunday 11-1pm… live stimulating mix of news, interviews, reports and discussion.


Waiting To Die

December 10, 2009

Stagnant. In that one word, the nursing home resident summed up the situation perfectly. Dementia care is failing the elderly. If you suffer a heart attack, you will get the latest high-tech treatment and care. However, if you develop dementia, the likelihood is that you’ll end up in a nursing home, bored and waiting to die.

The Irish-born businessman, Gerry Robinson, has produced a new two-part television series on the care of patients with dementia. He wanted to put the spotlight on dementia care and examine the general level of care that prevails in many care homes throughout the UK. The dementia care system is antiquated and lags far behind achievements in medicine and care elsewhere. Gerry was shocked by what he found. In most of the homes he visited, he found that the elderly rarely received one-to-one attention and were left to ‘stagnate’ in soul-less lounges, bored with nothing to do. He also found that the staff in the homes had a staggering lack of specialist training to understand the complex needs of people with dementia. Health and safety regulations conspired against offering patients stimulating care.

It was not all gloom and doom however. Gerry visited one nursing home in Warwickshire that manages to make residents feel alive and happy. Residents are actively involved in helping to run their home. This approach not only works on an emotional level, but it makes good business sense too. This home is rated as ‘excellent’ and is always full. The staff are valued, so the recruitment and training costs are low. Everyone wins.

Gerry’s message is simple… “There is too much box ticking and not enough emphasis put on human contact. Dementia sufferers lose their memory but not their ability to feel. They feel joy, excitement, pleasure, pain, hurt, anger, loneliness or hopelessness and feel them intensely. This makes our duty of care to them vital.”

Good care does not have to be expensive care. We need to change the focus of dementia care from one of keeping people alive, to one of helping people to enjoy the final years of their lives in a happy and truly caring environment. Quality of life should be the number one priority. One day, it could be you or me.

The final part of this series will be shown next Tuesday, 15 December @ 9pm on BBC2 .


A Lost World

May 23, 2009

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is a degenerative condition. It is fatal. The disease can last anywhere from 3-20 years but averages 7-8 years. The first sign is memory loss followed by personality changes. As AD progresses, the afflicted individual becomes disoriented about time and place and tends to exercise poor judgement. People with Alzheimer’s have an increasing  dependence on others and require round-the-clock care. The personality changes, cognitive lapses and eventual demise of a person with AD are extremely difficult on both patient’s and their loved ones. All is not lost however.

My parents both suffer from this progressive form of dementia and are in long-term residential care. Their world has shrunk to tiny proportions and they are oblivious to what goes on outside their own world. Happiness comes down to physical comfort and company. Family visits are a huge source of comfort to them both.

While sitting with my Mum in the Alzheimer unit yesterday, the lady in the bed next to her was very agitated. Doreen* is normally cared for at home but had come into the unit for a short period of respite care to give her family a much-needed break. Despite being very well looked after, there was terror written all over her face. Doreen’s world had fallen apart, she was ‘lost’ and required constant reassurance from the unit staff.  All afternoon she shouted “hello, hello” to anyone who passed and it was hard not to be moved by her anguish. When my Mum fell asleep, I finally got a chance to give Doreen the company she craved. The look of relief in her face will stay with me for a long time. She grasped my hand and tried desperately to find the words to express herself but the words would not come. I chatted to her calmly and told her that I understood why she was upset. Gradually she relaxed and then the tears came.  We hugged and I reassured her that I would come back soon for another chat.  That’s when I got rewarded with a most beautiful smile. Doreen was back on track and even though I knew it wouldn’t last, it made my day.

* Not her real name


Dementia is…

February 16, 2009

Dementia is an umbrella term used for a range of symptoms that manifest in a progressive decline in a person’s functioning, caused by degenerative disease of the brain. It is characterised by a gradual deterioration in memory and in the person’s ability to carry out everyday activities, make decisions, understand information and express themselves. It may also affect the person’s mood and personality. Dementia usually has an insidious onset, with most people developing symptoms gradually over a period of years. At present, it is not known what causes the different types of dementia. Medical research is ongoing throughout the world to discover the cause and develop new treatments. Put simply, dementia happens.

Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia in Ireland, accounts for more than 50% of all cases; the second most common form is vascular dementia, which may be preventable. While the risk of dementia increases with age, dementia is not a natural part of ageing.

Early signs and symptoms of dementia:

Usually a person will display a number of these signs:

  • Memory loss, particularly for recent events
  • Difficulty in performing everyday tasks
  • Changes in mood and behaviour
  • Changes in personality
  • Disorientation in familiar surroundings
  • Problems with language
  • Poor or decreased judgement
  • Misplacing things regularly
  • Difficulty solving problems or doing puzzles
  • Loss of interest in starting projects or doing things

gramps-at-woodstock2Facts and figures:

  • There are currently more than 40,000 people in Ireland with dementia, with the number expected to be in excess of 104,000 by 2037 unless there is a medical breakthrough.
  • Dementia can affect younger people; currently approximately 3,800 people in Ireland under the age of 65 have Younger Onset Dementia.
  • Dementia affects the lives of nearly 50,000 people in Ireland who are involved in caring for someone with the symptoms of dementia.

If you are worried that a family member may be experiencing the early symptoms of dementia, you should contact your general practitioner (GP). The GP may refer you on to a specialist, such as a geriatrician, neurologist or a psychiatrist in the psychiatry of old age services, who will conduct a full assessment to try to establish the cause of symptoms. The earlier help is found, the better the family and person with the condition will be able to manage and cope.

For further information on dementia and on services, contact the Alzheimer Society of Ireland.


Days with my Father

February 12, 2009

My father has no short-term memory. He’s otherwise in pretty good shape for an 89 year old but his memory, has failed him. Dad moved into full-time residential care some years ago as he requires constant reassurance and supervision. The  nursing home routine suits him well but even after all this time, he still hasn’t a clue where he is. Each evening he tells the nurses that he’s lost and asks if he can have a bed for the night.  He meticulously records in his diary that he’s “in hospital for night”. His only other regular diary entry, is a note to “ring Steph” but sadly, at this stage he’s even forgotten how to do that.

talking-phoneEverything is news to Dad. He cannot remember that my mother is in the same nursing home although he visits her almost every day. His eyes always light up when I tell him she’s just down the corridor.  Dad may not be able to remember much but he still bares all the same characteristics and his powers of observation are as sharp as ever.  He’s been a dapper dresser all his life and still insists on putting on a jacket and tie to visit my Mum. His bedside is littered with scraps of paper where he’s written down jumbled thoughts from his mind. One of the hallmarks of dementia is a deep suspicion of others and so my Dad tends to hide his possessions. A quick check of his belongings usually reveals a  banana hidden in a shoe and his bedside clock can be found in his wash kit along with several yoghurts and hundreds of biros. Quite a magpie, is my Dad!

The one thing that hasn’t changed with my father is his ability to enjoy company. He loves joking with the nurses and especially the female ones. He is always deeply appreciative of family visits and loves to hear news of the ‘outside world’. While words often fail him, it hasn’t stopped him enjoying hugs and close physical contact. We gad about the place together with arms linked and hands entwined as we laugh and chat. While it’s sad to watch my father deteriorate, I shall always be grateful that we’ve had this precious time together.

If you haven’t already come across ‘Days with my Father‘, I highly recommend it to you.  It’s a poignant photographic journal created by Phillip Toledano as an record of his own father. The resemblance to my father, is uncanny.


A Better Place

August 27, 2008

I knew the moment I walked into the dementia unit at the nursing home that something had changed. My mother was up and dressed and sitting in her wheelchair beside the window. I settled down beside her to chat and it was only then that I realised what was different… one of the long term residents was missing and her possessions were all neatly piled on top of her bed. Poor Hannah* had died during the night.

The other residents of the unit were all sitting staring into space as per normal and while they appeared oblivious to the fact that one of their own was no more, a sombre mood was palpable. Looking at them sitting in silence, I found it hard not to ponder over who’s turn it will be next… for that is the reality of this unit.

Alzheimer patients slowly fade away, it’s like a living death as bit by bit they withdraw from the world. The staff of this unit are very supportive of the families. We are like one big family who are on a difficult journey together and everyone supports one another. When a bereavement occurs, it affects everyone in the unit.

When Hannah’s family arrived to collect her belongings this afternoon, the sense of togetherness was powerful. We all hugged and shed a few tears and remembered the good times together. We’ve come to know each other well over the years and today’s farewell was a reminder that one day my turn will also come, to say goodbye.

My mother is one of the few residents in this unit that can still hold a conversation although she has great difficulty processing her thoughts. She loves to listen to the staff chatting as they work and will occasionally chip in with her penny’s worth.

Today, when I was discussing Hannah’s demise with the staff, my mother suddenly joined in and asked “well, is she better yet“?

I looked at her and smiled. “Hannah’s in a better place now, Mum, don’t you worry” and she smiled back at me happily.

Rest in Peace, Hannah.

* denotes a name change.


How Great Thou Art

July 24, 2008

Last night, I listened to RTE radio’s ‘Documentary on One‘ and was completely blown away by ‘The Long Goodbye’, a hugely moving documentary on Alzheimer’s disease. It was first broadcast in January 2007 and has since won a silver medal at this year’s New York Media Festival. The documentary follows the daily routine of a couple who have been married for 44 years but who’s lives have been changed dramatically in recent years, due to Alzheimer’s disease.

“Seven years ago May started mislaying her handbag and amounts of money and her husband Matt noticed that she would start to cry during the day. She was diagnosed with depression but after a year and a half, it finally emerged that May had Alzheimer’s disease.

On the verge of his retirement, Matt was now facing a new journey with his wife May, as her carer. The couple moved from their home in London back to her hometown in the midlands.

As May’s illness has progressed, the couple have swapped roles. Matt has taken over all domestic tasks, a world he never inhabited during the first few decades of their marriage. As her carer and husband, Matt acts as May’s voice and is her rock.

This documentary looks at the relationship between Matt and May, as May’s ability to communicate decreases with progression of the illness while Matt’s responsibilities for her care continue.”

Compiled and presented by Sarah Neville
Production Supervision Liam O’Brien

Click here to listen to the documentary.

RealPlayer is required to open. Fast forward to 2.23 minutes and prepare to be blown away by the power of love. And as Matt would say “play every day as it comes.” Who knows what the future holds?

With thanks to RTE Radio One.