'Dad may have died on April 25, but we lost him some time before'
Throughout Dementia Action Week (May 20-26), organisations in Bishop's Stortford have been highlighting their work helping sufferers of this terrible disease.
An estimated 850,000 people in the UK are affected by dementia – and not just the elderly, as some 40,000 under 65 suffer from early onset dementia – and it is believed that by 2051 that number will have risen to two million.
Until five weeks ago, when he died aged 82, my father Eugene Corr was one of them and his condition devastated not just his own life but the lives of all his family. I'm writing this to urge anyone with concerns to seek help and support as soon as possible...
It's hard to say when Dad's problems began. My mum Anne died of cancer in 2012. She was vivacious and gregarious, and, looking back, her lust for life may have cloaked his growing problems. After she passed away, it was all too easy to write off his behaviour as grief and an inability to cope without her.
But after a couple of years, my sister-in-law was brave enough to suggest he should see a doctor and he chose me to go with him for his appointment. I was with my mother when her consultant told her she had terminal cancer, but nothing could have prepared me for the shock of seeing my dad floundering at the surgery.
Of course, I had noticed that our topics of conversation had narrowed and now mostly revolved around family members and mowing the lawn – his two main interests after work became increasingly difficult (he never officially retired).
But until I saw him struggling to tell his doctor what year it was and remember even a simple sentence, I had been blind to how bad it was. So much had been explained away as "just old age", but, like a small child, he could no longer draw a clock face. The truth was undeniable: my proud, strong and capable father had dementia.
In very many ways we were lucky as a family. Dad had worked hard all his life and had the wherewithal to pay for the best private medical treatment and a carer, Michelle, who was truly his guardian angel.
We were also fortunate that we siblings are both close-knit and close by. My brothers, Brendan and Sean, run the family business, E Corr Plant Hire, from a yard next to Dad's home in Elsenham. Sean lives next door with his wife and their young son while Brendan and his family live near Dunmow. Like me, my sister Aine and her husband and young daughter live in Stansted. Dad was surrounded by his children and grandchildren, but in the end that didn't really matter to him.
He also had some long-standing true friends and extended family who continued to visit him up until the end, when, in truth, such visits had become something of an ordeal.
Dementia often robbed him of any joy in such connections. As the disease progressed, he became angry and aggressive. He knew what the condition was taking from him. He would stab his fingers at his forehead in frustration when he couldn't remember a word or a name.
His behaviour became erratic and often inexplicable. Some of what happened was very hurtful and it was hard to remind ourselves that the disease, not Dad, was to blame.
We also became increasingly worried about his safety – and that of others. Confiscating his car keys had proved a major but very necessary flashpoint, but as the disease progressed, even his ride-on mower posed a danger. And Dad often felt we were trying to control rather than protect him.
He was desperate to stay in his own home and we supported that, but as his sleeping patterns deteriorated he would leave the house and wander off in the small hours. My younger brother spent countless nights lying awake just to be ready to guide Dad back to bed.
A fall just before Christmas settled matters. Occupational health experts made it clear his 17th-century farmhouse was a potential death trap for someone with dementia and he moved to Hargrave House in Stansted, where the staff were wonderful.
Dad no longer knew where he was – or where home used to be – but he was angry about the change nevertheless.
A series of infections meant he spent the last four months of his life in and out of hospital fighting sepsis. This, in turn, accelerated his dementia and bouts of violent, distressing behaviour.
In the end, he no longer recognised the grandchildren who had been his last pleasure in life. Their final memory of their beloved grandfather is a broken man thrashing around a hospital bed.
The end, when it came, was a relief. Dad may have died on April 25, but we lost him some time before.