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'That's me, is it?'

PAT CROWLEY, the fashion designer, is poring over press-cuttings of her own illustrious career. We are sitting, on a summery afternoon, in the garden of her Sandymount home, she and I and her daughter Lisa.

"Who is this?" she says, jabbing a faded photograph from the Evening Herald. "That's you, mum," Lisa responds. "That's me, is it?"

"Yes."

"And when was that? 1981?" Pat addresses me, abruptly.

"And so you have been here since then?"

"No," I say, embarrassed.

"You have, mum," Lisasays, kindly.

Together, we look at pictures of models with tall, skinny, twiglet-bodies, big eyelashes and bold black eye make-up posing dramatically in outlandish knitted trousers. Barbie-doll models with Jackie O shades and white crochet dresses, cavorting in the Irish countryside. A glorious, glamorous feast of fabulous fashions. There is Miranda, the Countess of Iveagh (and Ireland's Best Dressed woman of her day), posing for the cover of Town andCountry in a whitePat Crowley dress, with a veiled hat and pearls, like a Sicilian teenage bride. There is former President Mary Robinson, in a brightly-coloured suit. There is Pat Crowley, a tall, slender redhead posing in one of her own creations, from the early Seventies.

Pat points to herself. "Oh. That's a lovely person. Isn't she gorgeous? And look at all the things she has in here!"

"Look at all the things she did!" Lisa says, encouragingly. "Look at that dress. And this one here. They are good."

Pat pauses, staring at her own dresses. "Very good," she concludes, folding her arms.

"Do you live here with us?" she asks me again.

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This is Pat Crowley as she is today. In 1999, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. It is a word that strikes terror into the hearts of many, me included. And it is a far cry from the glamorous world of high fashion. It is not a word that is synonymous with jet-setting models and Paris couture collections, it is a word that conjures up images of helplessness, dependency and the indignity of losing control of one's own body.

It wasn't always this way, of course. I never met the Pat Crowley that we are seeing in the pictures and reading about, the high-flying,creative, dynamic Pat. It isone of the most disconcerting situations that I have ever found myself in, to be here with her now, looking through the pictures of what must be, in many ways, a completely different person.

The one thing that has not changed however is the glamour. As yet, Pat doesn't look like a person with any kind of an illness. At the age of 71, she has a body that a 30-year-old would envy, she is slender and agile and neatly groomed, in dark brown trousers and a jacket. She could be on her way to a meeting, in fact thatis what she seems to thinkis happening.

In an era when married Irish women were expected to retire from the workplace and look after their husbands, Pat Crowley was an exception to the rule. As a young woman, on leaving school she studied fashion design with the Grafton Academy in Dublin because, as she herself said: "My mother said that a girl should always know how to make her own clothes."

Having graduated, she got a job as an air hostess with Aer Lingus (a job that was the envy of every girl, at that time, the equivalent of being a supermodel today.) This she did because it was an opportunity to travel and see the world. It also meant that she was on the first transatlantic flight. At a Lansdowne Road rugby international, she caught the eye of Conor Crowley, from Stillorgan, who was attending the match with his mother. His mother pointed out Pat to him and suggested it was about time he got married. Unknown to her, he had already asked Pat for a date! Pat had a lot of admirers, but she chose Conor and upon marrying him, she left Aer Lingus, as was customary for married women at the time, but she didn't settle down quietly at home. She went on the Pill and went back to work.

"She hid the Pill under the floor boards," Lisa laughs. "She was a thoroughly modern woman!"

It was to take 11 years before Pat decided to start a family. In the meantime, she took a job with Irene Gilbert, a leading couturier of her day and learned everything that there was to learn about the fashion business, including sales and marketing. In 1968, she launched her own range of knitted and crocheted fashions that took the traditional woolly jumper and turned it into something altogether outrageously avant-garde, as is evidenced by the outlandish knitted trousers that even I would be terrified to wear.

"Pat had an amazing imagination and she was veryinventive, I think she wasalmost psychic," says Miranda Iveagh. "She dressed me regularly and I always felt frightfully happy in her clothes. She dressed you in such a witty way, to fit your character. And she herself was terribly stylish."

Miranda, being a society beauty, was photographed often in Pat Crowley and was particularly fond of the clever 'Irishisms' that were attached to the garments, such as a hand-knitted Aran flower sewn onto a tweed coat. The look and the attitude was all about telling the world that Ireland was a hip and swinging little country and a thoroughly modern one. And Pat was an enormously astute businesswoman, who made her own money, unlike many of the ladies that wore her clothes. "Pat had a way of charming the husbands into spending a lot more than they thought they would spend, on their wives," Miranda laughs.

"Because of course a lot of the women depended on their husbands giving them permission to buy the clothes!"

In the early Seventies, Pat employed 600 knitters, dotted around the country, who worked hard to maintain her exacting standards of workmanship. And all through the financial doldrums, business continued to boom, as she began to buy in designers like Valentino and Ungaro, to supplement her own collections.

"Even though we are in the middle of a financial recession, there is no need to suffer a personal depression, by denying ourselves beautiful clothes," she is quoted as saying in an American newspaper. And it was in America that she found her wealthiest clients, people like the Kennedy women and the Whitneys [the banking dynasty].

Throughout the Eighties, Pat would load up trunks with her creations and take them to rich ladies in the US, who needed an endless supply of glamorous garments to take them through the social whirl. And every year, at her fashion shows in Dublin, Irish ladies who lunched could be assured of dashing daywear and lashings of evening gowns. Pat compered her own shows and was, according to sources, so enthusiastic that she almost never finished a sentence.

"The clothes were extremely expensive!" Kathleen Watkins, wife of Gay Byrne and a former model tells me. "But they were so incredibly feminine and magnificent. And Pat herself was so excited about her dresses, she would marvel at how pretty you looked as she was pinning you in to them!"

Heads turned, as Pat walked down Grafton Street, in one of her own designs with a cape billowing behind her. "Pat Crowley was simply the most stylish woman in Ireland," Terry Keane said of her.

"You just had to have a Pat Crowley in your wardrobe," Cecily McMenamin assures me. Cecily ran Brown Thomas, favoured by the ladies-who-lunch. Throughout the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, Pat Crowley dressed everyone from posh ladies to presidents, from film stars to opera singers. Everyone who was anyone knew who she was.

Over the years, she evolved from designing things that she liked the look of to, as she said herself, designing clothes with the wearer and her lifestyle in mind. By the Nineties, the clothes were colourful but respectable. The sort of thing the President could be seen in. No more crocheted mini-dresses. But the reviews were consistently admiring and business showed no signs of slacking.

'PAT was a wonderful person to work for, she had a great sense of fun, she was good-looking and she was successful," says her former assistant Cecily Morris. "She actually had everything!"

The Crowley family, up to mid-1999, did appear to have everything. Both parents still married, still healthy, happy and successful. Pat doing extremely well, career wise. Her husband Conor had a horse running in the European Championships. They lived in a beautiful house in Dunboyne and kept horses. There were three lovely children, Vernon, Fiona and Lisa also healthy and happy. Then suddenly Pat - who rode her horses every day and was as fit as a fiddle - broke her hip.

"That was the first time she had been in a hospital since she had babies, no exaggeration," Lisa says. "She hadn't even had a cold."

Although the hip operation was successful, Pat changed.

"Afterwards, she started forgetting little things like where she had left her keys," Lisa says. "It was becoming obvious to people that she was working with. And she wrote lists and literally ticked things off, as she did them. The next day there would be a new list. If you look at any of her diaries, the whole page is covered with telephone numbers and names. Now that I have read a bit about Alzheimer's, I have discovered that people who make lists are more prone to it."

Then, in September 1999, Conor Crowley passed away suddenly.

"After that, it was like she had disappeared. I brought her in to be diagnosed in November and she was kicking and screaming. I remember it so well, I had taken a half day off from work, she had been riding a horse that morning and she was totally compos mentis in her jodhpurs and riding boots and she said 'You are not going to put me into a loony bin!' She actually got her hand and slapped my arm. I knew that she understood what it would be like. I read her diary two days later and it said 'Lisa brought me to the doctor. I actually was quite glad. I was very frightened.'It was frightening stuff foreveryone concerned, andvery emotional.

"I was putting off bringing her in, hoping that it would go away or improve, that it was just that she was getting depressed and missing Dad. I had even suggested that she talk to someone professional, but she said 'I don't need to talk to someone!' Because she was so frightfully independent, always."

We watch Pat throwing a ball to the dog. She is clearly enjoying herself.

"Her spirit is amazing, isn't it?" Lisa says. "I never actually saw her sit down and read a book or watch television, when I was growing up. She was always on the move, riding, cooking, arranging things. She just wasn't the type of person to rest. Maybe it's because her brain was so busy, because she was so frenetic, maybe there was too much going on, and not enough rooms. I don't know."

She tails off. Do they have any idea what causes it? I ask.

"No idea. They are clutching at straws. They do all these tests. But all the research is still in its infancy. All they know is that people are being diagnosed younger and younger, particularly men."

We look at a picture of Pat on her horse. She reminds me of Joanna Lumley.

"Those are our horses," she tells me.

"Where do you keep the horses," I ask.

"We don't have horsesany more," Lisa explains, gently. "We sold them after Dad died."

"It must have been hard," I say "To lose your dad, but also to lose your mum in that way."

"It was terrible. When dad died, that was it. It was like we lost both of them at the same time. Mum was in New York, when it happened. That was something she never forgave herself for, for not being here." Conor hadn't been ill. He had been away in Germany and was excited about his horse.

"He spoke to my brother, who was coming round that evening to cook him dinner because mum was away. And when Vernon arrived in at about half six, there was no sign of dad, so my brother put the food into the oven. And at seven, he went upstairs and found dad dead in the bed. That was it, no warning. His glasses were on his book, he had just gone for a nap and that was it."

Lisa and her sister Fiona had been in Italy.

"I had seen a phone box and I had looked at my watch and said: 'OK, Dad will be home now, I'll call him.

"But I didn't call him. And the next time I saw him, he was laid out in his coffin."

That was the last time Pat was ever her normal self.

"The minute we collected her at the airport we could tell. She was on a different level, in her head."

She never came back?

"No, she didn't. I think the hip thing really did upset her, and then Dad dying so soon afterwards."

"Are you living with us at the moment?" Pat asks me. "No," I say.

"Would you like her to come and live with us?"

"That would be very nice."

Alice, who looks after Pat, is taking her for a walk. She points out to Lisa that Pat can climb out of the window, and does, if she feels like going outside.

"She is regressing back to childhood," Lisa explains. "They have no idea how long it might take."

When Pat and Alice leave, we are able to leaf through the books uninterrupted. It is a relief. But it is also very sad. Lisa relaxes, visibly.

"Tough?" I say. "It's very tough. But she's in good spirits. She's oblivious to the fact that she needs help. In the beginning it was so hard to introduce someone to come and mind her. She resisted it totally. She said 'How dare you, I don't want that person in my house.' It terrifies her. But the nurse that we have is wonderful."

There have been moments of lucidity, rare and precious moments.

"We went to Italy, for my sister's wedding," Lisa says. "And for most of the trip, mum was agitated and anxious, constantly asking people to take her home. But in Orvieto, one afternoon, she turned to me and for about half an hour,we had a normal conversation. It was amazing!"

There are also moments when the reality of the situation hits home hard.

"I had to go and buy her nappies the other day, and that was so hard. I had to pick up a commode from the hospital, as well. She might only be at home for a year, who knows? Because then she will become unmanageable."

Between Lisa and her brother and the hired help, they manage. But even getting Alice was very difficult. For some other families with an Alzheimer's patient, life is unbearably hard. Which is why Lisa has become involved in 'The Orchard', a project which aims to open a respite and day centre for Alzheimer's patients.

"Mum was always helping people, so I suppose she's passed on the mantle to me," Lisa says. "I got involved for selfish reasons, because they had a helpline and it was the only way I could rationally come to terms with what is happening and put it in perspective. And from networking with other people in the same situation I've realised that there are a lot of people who are devastated by this disease and it's not something that gets as much publicity as cancer does, even though it affects as many people."

The intention is for 'The Orchard' to open in Blackrock, providing 25 beds for respite care as well as a day care centre, a library and support groups. Pat, Lisa feels, would thoroughly approve of having her story told, if she knew that it would draw attention to the disease and raise awareness, which is why Lisa decided to talk to me. There is one photograph of Patthat Lisa draws my attention to, in particular. In the photograph, she is sitting in the back garden, holding her granddaughter Saoirse, who is one year old. She looks radiantly happy.

"What is particularly amazing about this photograph is that mum has such an elated face," Lisa says. "Alice, who has worked with Alzheimer's patients for years said she couldn't understand it, because Alzheimer's patients normally have very blank, vacant expressions. Clearly mum has really acknowledged who she was holding. Which goes to show you that there is always hope.

"Things are never as black as they seem."

© Victoria Mary Clarke

A new fundraiser starts on Friday, October 15. Called 'Hero Day', it celebrates the carers who are the unsung heroes.

Alzheimer's Society of Ireland helpline 1800 341 341

www.alzheimers.ie


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