Glimpsing the light within

It�s hard to imagine your mother, your husband, your sister, your loved one no longer recognising your face. That they don�t recall the life you had together, what you mean to each other, that you love them, is a special kind of pain.   With dementia � a collection of symptoms caused by disorders affecting the brain − this kind of slipping away is a common experience. For some people it is gradual, elusive, the mere wisps and shadows of change. For others it can be abrupt and shocking. For everyone it is irreversible.                                                                                                            

�Losing someone to dementia can be a long and painful process,� said Andrew Watt whose father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of early onset Alzheimer�s disease when he was 52 years old. 

Andrew was only 18 at the time and said, �Dad had always been eccentric and we gradually watched him become a sort of caricature of himself. At the start we put it down to ageing and we made excuses for him taking longer to do things, but it all came to a head when he went into hospital for a routine back operation. 

�When he came out of the anaesthetic we got a call to say something was wrong. At first we thought something terrible happened during the operation, but as it turned out he had disappeared. When Dad came to, he got up and just wandered off. This hospital was the same hospital he had worked in for many years as a surgeon. It was very familiar to him. He knew the corridors, the people, the smells and sounds, the routines. So when he woke up he thought he was doing his ward rounds, and off he went. 

�While we were relieved nothing awful had happened on the operating table, Dad�s world had suddenly changed and nothing would ever be the same again.� 

Andrew shared his story as a guest speaker at Depression + Dementia � an interactive panel discussion held on 19 September during Dementia Awareness Week. The event was hosted by Mercy Place Parkville and the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) for Mental Health to help people understand more about this terminal condition.  


light within 

The Depression + Dementia interactive panel discussion held at Mercy Place Parkville during Dementia Awareness Week was an important opportunity for people to learn about current dementia research, care options for those affected by depression and dementia, and how to recognise signs and symptoms of each condition.   


In Australia there are over 321,600 older people living with dementia, with the number set to increase to 400,000 in less than 10 years. It is the third leading cause of death in Australia and there is no cure. Such raw, overwhelming statistics can be difficult to comprehend. Difficult in terms of what it means for the people who are living with dementia, the people who care for them and the people who are looking for ways to manage or prevent the disease. 

The Depression + Dementia panel included Professor Fran McInerney, Chair of Aged Care, Mercy Health; Professor Ashley Bush, Chief Scientific Officer, CRC for Mental Health; Clinical Associate Professor Briony Dow, Director Health Promotion Division, National Ageing Research Institute; and Mr Andrew Watt, Advocate, Alzheimer�s Australia Victoria. 

A variety of topics were covered throughout the evening including the physical causes of dementia and Alzheimer�s disease, current research into the detection and treatment of dementia and Alzheimer�s disease, lifestyle factors that support wellbeing, behaviour changes, depression, anxiety and the types of care that dementia sufferers and their carers may need.  

Mercy Place Parkville residents, family members, carers, staff and community members were invited to attend the event and all were able to share their experiences of living with the condition or caring for someone with dementia. The stories shared by the audience were at times sad, funny, uplifting and tragic and each one helped paint a picture of the many ways dementia changes lives.   

One participant asked whether it is ok to �go along with� someone who has regressed to an earlier time in their lives, to indulge their perception of reality that may be occurring 40 years ago, or in another country, another lifetime .

�It is not an issue to put people�s minds at ease when you are caring for them,� said panellist, Professor Fran McInerney who specialises in dementia and palliative care. �We use all sorts of therapeutic approaches and one is to validate what the person is saying as you enter into their world.� 

Through her research program and as Mercy Health�s Chair of Aged Care, Fran works with a range of clinicians and healthcare professionals to improve the way we care for older people. �As dementia is a progressive and terminal condition, support is needed for sufferers, carers and families through all phases of the disease. This covers the spectrum from respite care to making the most of the lifestyle opportunities available to people to palliative care and the bereavement process. 

�While there is still so much to learn, we know that people with dementia can live rich and varied lives and we continue to look for ways to connect with those whose worlds change so profoundly through this condition. The person you love is still there and while caring for them and coping with dementia can be difficult, it is important to look for and create moments of joy - to glimpse the light within that person.� 

The Dementia + Depression panel discussion will soon be made available to all on Mercy Health�s website. As an advocate for the health and wellbeing of older people in our community Mercy Health is committed to promoting discussion of dementia, providing opportunities to share stories and experiences, and support research that may advance treatment and prevention of such conditions in the future. For more information visit 

For more information on dementia or Alzheimer�s disease in particular visit or call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500. 


Date Published:  18 December 2013

First Published:   Our Voice, Summer 2013 

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