Miriam Donohoe: Dementia knows no mercy -- not even for charming Albert
It was with great sadness yesterday that we learned former Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader, Albert Reynolds, was in the very late stages of the cruellest of diseases, Alzheimer's.
Published 17/12/2013 | 17:00
Alzheimer's affects about 40,000 in Ireland
Of all of the modern-day illnesses Alzheimer's is one of the most unforgiving, slowly robbing the sufferer of his or her mind and leaving them a shell -- with devastated family and loved ones helpless to intervene.
As a young reporter, I remember Albert (as we called him) as a clever, courteous and helpful politician. Albert was nearly always in good humour, ready to shoot the breeze, and available -- even as Taoiseach -- on the other end of the phone, happy to give a news-hungry hack a line or two.
He was also a wily political operator, using his great charm and conciliatory nature to achieve his goals. He had a great insight into the Northern conflict, and his view was that change could only come about by engaging the various parties in talks.
It was fitting that he was remembered as one of the architects, along with John Major, of the Downing Street Declaration, something that laid the foundations for peace on the island. Many people wondered why Albert did not feature in interviews for the 20th anniversary of the Declaration, one of his finest achievements in office.
We now know why.
Yesterday Albert's son Philip took to the airwaves to tell the nation that his father was in the "very late stages" of Alzheimer's disease.
In a brave and open interview, he told Shannon FM that it was a measure of the deterioration in his father's condition that he was unable to attend the anniversary celebrations, but was represented by his wife Kathleen instead.
Albert and Kathleen are a close and devoted couple. When she battled breast cancer 25 years ago, he made a point of spending as much time as possible with her despite his hectic political schedule. She was a patient woman, putting up with his late and unsociable hours.
Albert loved a good party, and didn't drink until he left politics. He was always one of the last people to leave an event and it can't have been easy for Kathleen. We also came to know Albert's seven children during his political career. A handsome family, they were always in the Dail on their father's big days. We followed their weddings, career achievements, and big family events through the social pages of the newspapers.
It is now Kathleen's turn to do the caring. And it must be heartbreaking knowing that her partner in life no longer recognises her. While she could see a cure for her cancer, there is no cure for Albert. There is no turning back once Alzheimer's takes hold.
"Right now he's pretty bad. He has 24-hour care," Philip said yesterday. He recalled that his father first began suffering from Alzheimer's five years ago when he started to repeat himself and ask the same questions over and over again. The disease has progressed a long way since then and Albert is now unable to have conversations with people.
But ever the politician, Albert is still able to make people believe that he can recognise them as he battles the very late stages of the cruel disease.
"You would never know whether he knew you or recognised you because he would greet you the same no matter what. And there is still a bit of that glint in his eye when you come into the room," Philip revealed.
Albert and the Reynolds family are not on their own. Alzheimer's and related dementia currently affects approximately 40,000 people in Ireland.
Dementia knows no mercy. It erases the memory of a person's last years and leaves them helpless and in need of constant care. The killing thing for family is knowing that their loved ones don't remember them.
Last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a global fight against dementia. He told a G8 summit meeting that a new brain scanning technique will be introduced on the NHS in Britain to allow doctors to diagnose the disease, bringing hope to millions who fear developing the illness as they grow older.
Other well known world figures have suffered from Alzheimer's. Former US President Ronald Regan died from the disease. The bestselling author Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2007 and recently wrote a blog in which he accused the British government of 'pussy-footing' around on dementia treatment.
Mr Cameron summed it up last week when he said: "It doesn't matter whether you're in London or Los Angeles, in rural India or urban Japan -- this disease steals lives, it wrecks families, it breaks hearts and that is why all of us here are so utterly determined to beat it."
In generations past, the world came together to take on the great killers -- malaria, cancer, HIV and AIDS. The next battle front is Alzheimer's.
Albert Reynolds often gave advice that when things are at their worst, you put on your best suit and smile sweetly at the piranhas.
Let's hope that in sharing news of Albert's illness with the country the Reynolds family will put on their best suits and feel comfort in the knowledge they have the love and goodwill of people all over the country.
And wherever Albert is now, let's hope he is back in one of the many good times he lived through.