Sunday 28 December 2014

Staying strong with Alzheimer's

Liz Cunningham used to train people living with a disability, but when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, says Joy Orpen, she was forced to seek help of her own. Now reclaiming some independence is a daily goal

Philip Cunningham and his wife, Liz
Philip Cunningham and his wife, Liz

Imagine going to the bathroom at work and, just a few minutes later, realising you don't know how to get back to your office? Or how about standing in front of an audience and then realising, with acute embarrassment, that you have forgotten what you planned to say?

These are just two of the traumas that have befallen Liz Cunningham, 51, a pretty, vivacious Belfast resident with a prestigious career in information technology (IT) behind her.

The events are symptomatic of a degenerative disease that will increasingly rob her of her ability to comprehend the world about her.

Liz suffers from Alzheimer's disease (AD). According to the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, "This is the most common cause of dementia. It is recognised by the build up of protein on the brain that forms plaques and tangles that stop the brain working as it should."

The muddling of her mind appears to mirror some of the confusion Liz felt growing up in a divided Ireland. She used to play with the six-inch rubber bullets that peppered the gable wall of her family home; gunfire and bombs exploding were very real experiences.

With a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, Liz felt torn.

Her concerned father would urge her to go to a church of his choosing. But she resisted, because, in truth, she was drawn to the Catholic Church.

However, that didn't stop her falling for, and eventually marrying Philip Cunningham, a softly spoken, young Protestant painter and decorator.

They were deliriously happy, until one fateful day, when Philip had an accident while riding his pushbike. And, though doctors saved his badly damaged leg, he was left with chronic pain, a walking stick and unfit for manual work.

Liz, who left school at 16, and who had previously worked as a court clerk and as a credit controller, realised that, if she was to support the family, she needed further education. So she enrolled at an adult education college and achieved a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) Level Four in business information and technology.

She then embarked on further studies at Queen's University, where she did IT and business systems. This resulted in Liz providing IT training for people who were living with a disability.

While Philip stayed at home to care for their two beautiful girls, Liz was doing work she loved. In time, she moved to the Cedar Foundation, which has as its vision, "a society accessible to all".

"I began training people so they could be more self-sufficient, as well as having the skills to train others," says Liz.

By now, Liz had many responsibilities. But then came a time when she began struggling with simple tasks.

Her daughter took her to a GP, who prescribed antidepressants, which only made her depression worse.

"Because you are a woman, and there are tears and emotions involved, they automatically assume it's menopausal," says Liz. "But my daughter wasn't having any of that."

Eventually, Liz was seen by Dr Michael Mary Doherty, a psychiatrist at Belfast's Mater Hospital, who diagnosed posterior cortical atrophy – a form of Alzheimer's that affects the back of the brain.

Sunday Indo Life Magazine

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