by Fran Withrow
Dementia. That word strikes almost as much fear in our hearts as cancer. The thought of being unable to recognize loved ones, losing one’s independence, and forgetting everything that makes one a unique individual is terrifying. And it is even more frightening when it happens at a younger age than normal.
Wendy Mitchell of Yorkshire, England, should know. In 2014, at age 58, this single mother of two adult daughters was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It was quite a blow to this active, highly organized, energetic woman who prided herself on her exceptional memory skills as an administrator for the British National Health Service.
At first puzzled by her falls, fuzzy memory, and fatigue, Mitchell deftly chronicles the path toward her diagnosis. She could easily have given up and shut down, but instead she decides to fight back, refusing to let dementia define or limit her.
She begins by adapting her behavior and her surroundings to accommodate her impaired memory. After she can no longer drive a car, she buys a bike. When she finds herself capable of only turning left, she cleverly alters her routes. When she forgets what is in her kitchen drawers, she downloads photos and tapes them on her cabinets. She set alarms on her iPad to help her remember her medications, appointments, and eating schedule. She even blocks herself into her kitchen so she won’t fix a salad and then wander away, forgetting to finish it.
She might have dementia, but Mitchell gets top marks for innovation and creativity.
But Mitchell does not stop with just finding solutions for herself. Determined to make a difference, she sets off to help others, becoming heavily involved in support groups and the medical community. She travels alone, carefully mapping her route and hotel accommodations ahead of time, to speak at conferences. She starts a blog called “Which Me am I Today?” which serves to raise awareness about dementia and to remind readers that people with dementia have feelings, deserve compassion, and can still make meaningful contributions to society.
Too often we only see the outside of a person with dementia. Mitchell peels away the outer layers and lets us see inside. What does dementia feel like? How does one cope, knowing there is no cure? How can society support those who face dementia, and what tools might dementia patients use so they can be independent as long as possible?
As her disease progresses, she remains flexible, always looking for the positive. She takes the doors off rooms in her house so she can remember what is in each one. She befriends the taxi’s office by taking them cookies and explaining why she calls if the cab is even one minute late. She is kind to herself, recognizing that some days are good days and some days are not.
This incredible, plucky woman has a lot to teach us about resourcefulness, courage, and hope. Wendy Mitchell’s memoir deserves to be read by patients, their families, and the medical community. Mitchell may someday forget she has written this gem, but the reader will surely not forget her.
“Somebody I Used to Know: A Memoir”
by Wendy Mitchell