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Sunday, June 15, 2008

I broke down on live TV over my dad's Alzheimer's


The article on the following page is important and uplifting. I remember during those first few months of caring for my mother how sad and frustrated I was feeling. Then, I met a young couple in the gym that had gone through the entire experience from beginning to end with their mother who suffered and died from Alzheimer's disease.

I remember as I related my own experience to them how they shook their heads up and down indicating they knew exactly what I was experiencing. They recounted their similar experiences and always with a smile on their face. I remember feeling immediately "I was not alone". The feelings of frustration, fear and sadness dissipated and I now find myself thinking, "I can do it".

'Alzheimer's is such a cruel disease because that vibrant person is taken away from you. They are still there in body but it's like the shell. The person you remember has gone.'



I broke down on live TV over my dad's Alzheimer's.

Driving across Dartmoor with her parents one sunny afternoon in 1995, Ruth Langsford's father Dennis observed a beautiful barn conversion and said he had admired it earlier in the day.

When Ruth irritably pointed out that she had taken a different road on the outward journey, he insisted she was wrong. 'He got quite cross and we had a discussion that almost turned into a row, while Mum kept quiet in the back of the car. He was adamant that he was right,' Ruth recalls.



'Then we saw a man leaning over a five-bar gate and Dad said, "I remember that man. He waved at us." At that moment I thought, oh my God, he's gone mad. What's the matter with him?

'When I got home I even got a map out to show him the way we had gone. But he still wouldn't have it. That evening I said to my Mum I thought something wasn't right.'

While the incident may have been minor, it disturbed Ruth, a presenter on ITV1's This Morning and long-term partner of Eamonn Holmes of Sky Breakfast News. She believes now it was the first real indicator that her father was in the early stages of Alzheimer's.

The condition, thought to affect half the 700,000 dementia patients in the UK, begins with short-term memory loss, clumsiness and problems with communication, and gradually robs sufferers of their faculties, leaving them unable to remember close family or perform even the simplest tasks unaided.

Today, Dennis, 81, is in the advanced stages of the illness, and is in full-time residential care in Cornwall.

And as she speaks about her father's illness, Ruth, 48, known for her warmth and humour on the This Morning sofa - regularly co-hosting the Friday edition with Phillip Schofield - often loses her composure.

'I think he still knows my Mum - his eyes always light up when she walks in the room, but sometimes I'm not sure if he knows me anymore,' says Ruth, her eyes filling with tears.

'It is very hard. I adore my Dad. The only way I can describe it is that you are grieving for a loved one while they are still alive. It is the saddest kind of bereavement.'

She adds: 'He was the most clever, funny, vibrant man. He played rugby, scrambled motorbikes and flew gliders. He was handsome, the best storyteller ever and the life and soul of the party.

'He was a fantastic father and, in my opinion, a New Man ahead of his time. He taught my sister Julia and me to fish and sail. We had such good times and love him to bits.

'Alzheimer's is such a cruel disease because that vibrant person is taken away from you. They are still there in body but it's like the shell. The person you remember has gone.'

Her mother Joan admitted that the incident in the car was not the first worrying episode.

When his camera had gone missing, it turned out he had left it in the garden shed. Slippers turned up in the fridge.

She had voiced her concerns to her GP, tentatively suggesting Alzheimer's, only to be told that it was probably forgetfulness and old age.

Despite the alarm bells, Ruth reveals it took several years for her family to get the truth that he was suffering from dementia, and by the time he was formally diagnosed 11 years ago, the disease of the brain was so advanced that doctors could do little to halt its progression with drugs.

'My father was a former Army man - meticulous and tidy,' says Ruth.

'I knew it wasn't right. When I was a child, if I borrowed the Sellotape, it had to go back in the drawer in exactly the right place.'

Her father's vagueness was also a tricky subject to broach as he was 'a fiercely proud, independent man who disliked any fuss'.

In the military for 30 years, rising through the ranks to warrant officer, Dennis moved his family to various Army bases abroad.

Ruth was born in Singapore and her sister Julia, now 50, and a landscape gardener, was born in Germany. Her parents have been married 54 years.

'They met at a dance when Mum was in the Wrens. My dad was a young soldier and she was a gorgeous redhead.

'Apparently, when he saw her on the other side of the room he said to one of his friends, "I'm going to marry that girl."' After he left the Army in 1972 the couple moved to Cornwall where Dennis was born. They set up home in the village of Millbrook on the beautiful Rame Peninsula, where he worked in the education department for Devon County Council.

'I don't think he was ever as happy as he was in the Army. He eventually retired when he was 65. That's another thing that is so sad. My parents had so many plans for their retirement. Dad had lots of hobbies and interests - he loved photography, pottery and music.'

Until this point, Dennis had been fit and healthy. He had a small heart attack in 1996 but had recovered after a pace-maker was fitted.

As his Alzheimer's progressed, Joan's fears intensified.

'Often Mum would discuss the latest bizarre thing he'd done, but because we weren't living with it, we'd say, "I'm sure it's nothing." It was only when I spent time with him that I saw what she meant.'

The turning point was in 1997 when the couple visited London and Ruth took them to Wimbledon Village for afternoon tea. Once again, Dennis swore blind he had been to the café recently.

'But he was clearly talking about when we were children. I felt sick inside. And for the first time I didn't argue with him. Mum and I just said: "Really?" I knew something was seriously wrong.'

When she returned home, Joan, 77, went to the GP alone at Ruth's insistence. The doctor suggested a Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE), a series of simple questions to test mental ability relating to dementia.

The test - carried out at home by an old-age psychiatrist - confirmed the family's fears, but they agreed not to tell him.

'I still question whether that was the right thing to do, but every family has to deal with it their own way,' Ruth says. 'But Dad did get to the stage where he was aware things weren't quite right.'

Some days, Ruth feels angry that the disease has robbed her five-year-old son, Jack, of a loving grandfather. 'I take Jack to the park and see grandparents playing with their grandchildren - it breaks my heart.'

Eamonn, 48, whom she has been with for 12 years, has been a great support. She says: 'He loves my Dad. The two of them would always tease me. Eamonn's a great family man. He lost his own father when he was only in his 60s and was devastated.

'I wish we had been given more information. He's never been put on medication and there are drugs available that can slow Alzheimer's progress. Now I wonder why we didn't ask, but it's too late.'

Despite the diagnosis, the implications of day-to-day caring for a sufferer didn't sink in. Ruth regularly visited Cornwall from her home in Surrey, but realises her mum protected her from her physical struggle.

Dennis would often close all the curtains in the middle of the day, or Joan would wake to find him fully dressed at four in the morning.

'In a way it's like being a new mother with a baby,' says Ruth.

'Fortunately, he's never been physically aggressive, as some dementia sufferers can be. But he was verbally aggressive a few times and that really upset her. Much as he was quite fiery, he was never cruel before.

'Suddenly he would say quite nasty things to her that really upset her. But that wasn't Dad. He adored Mum.'

A health worker visited Joan regularly, and in recent years Dennis was in a respite home for a week at a time to give her a break.

The final straw was when Ruth bumped into a friend of her mother. 'She said innocently, "We've been worried about your Mum, she looks so tired."

'I felt like the worst daughter in the world. She was trying to protect us and be strong for the man she loved and adored.

'My sister and I are really close but we felt guilty that we didn't have the full picture. We discovered Dad had fallen over a few times. We were worried about her getting ill.'

Eighteen months ago Dennis moved full-time into a local care home, where he seems content, and Joan visits regularly.

'I was distraught but we had to admit defeat. It's hardest for my mum. For her life partner, her lover and friend to be getting to the stage now where he doesn't recognise us, is just devastating,' says Ruth.

Ruth had never spoken publicly about her father's illness until last year, during a studio discussion on This Morning, when she broke down on air talking to a caller about Alzheimer's.

'Thankfully, I was co-presenting with Eamonn.

He squeezed my back to comfort me and he made a joke to break the ice.'

Ruth was deluged by emails and letters from viewers with similar stories. The Alzheimer's Society approached her initially to offer support, then to ask her to be an ambassador for the charity.

'Now we think the disease started five years before we were told Dad had Alzheimer's. Early diagnosis is key - for treatment and to prepare you and your family emotionally.'

By 2025 there will be one million dementia sufferers in the UK according to last year's Dementia UK report prepared by the LSE and King's College, London.

One in three people over 65 will die with dementia, yet up to two thirds will never receive a formal diagnosis. Early diagnosis is crucial, but those with dementia and their families often say that finding out about the problem was the start of getting back in control.

'I do feel guilty that I didn't pursue a diagnosis earlier on,' says Ruth. 'The truth is that I didn't want him to be ill. The thought of it frightened me and I was running away from it. I didn't want my dad to get old and doddery.

'I miss talking to him, I miss going to him for advice. I miss Christmas shopping together and going to the pub together or sneaking off down the garden for a crafty fag. He was my mate as well as my dad.'

Ruth is keen to promote a new Alzheimer's Society initiative, Worried About Your Memory? (WAYM?), encouraging individuals and families to seek help when they notice those vital early signs of forgetfulness.

'GPs are busy and if episodes are sporadic, then it's understandable not to take it too seriously,' says Ruth.

'We all forget things but if you are genuinely worried about your memory, don't think, "It's just me being dotty". Go and see your doctor.'

This weekend, Ruth, who will be appearing on This Morning from July 21 until the end of August, will have made the 500-mile round trip with her sister Julia to Cornwall to visit Dennis on Father's Day, with a kiss, a card and his favourite Mars bars and Maltesers.

'He seems in a good place. My theory is that he is back in the Army, which he loved.

'He says the same thing over and over again: "They're a lovely bunch of lads in here." And that is all he says. Over and over again. He's as happy as Larry.'

• For information on the Worried About Your Memory? campaign, visit www.alzheimers.org.uk or call the Alzheimer's Society Dementia Helpline, 0845 300 0336.


10 things to know about Alzheimer's

• German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer identified the first case in 1906. It was officially recognised by the medical profession in 1910.

• Alzheimer's is the most frequent type of dementia in the elderly, affecting almost half the 700,000 patients with dementia in the UK.

• About two per cent of those aged 65 show signs of the disease. Every five years after the age of 65, the probability of developing the disease doubles. Some ten per cent of Alzheimer's cases are inherited.

• It is diagnosed by using brain scans, patient history and observing behaviour.

• A shrinking vocabulary, problems talking and short-term memory loss are normally the first signs. Difficulty writing and dressing are also common.

• In the late stages, language is lost and patients cannot perform even simple tasks. Finally deterioration of muscle leads to sufferers becoming bedridden.

• Average life expectancy is about seven years after diagnosis, and less than seven per cent of patients live more than 14 years.

• There is no cure, but a type of drug called cholinesterase inhibitors can slow down progression in those with moderate Alzheimer's.

• Anti-depressants are prescribed to help treat the depression that can be associated with the disease.

• Sufferers have included US President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and writer Iris Murdoch.