WHEN Mary Flynn returned from a trip of a lifetime for her 70th birthday, after visiting her sister in California, her family noticed that her memory had begun to deteriorate.
“It was a big trip,” recalls Mary’s daughter, Mary-Anne Ryan, who lives in Carragline.
“Herself and dad had a great time in the USA, but soon after they came back from California we noticed that mam had bouts of memory loss and dizziness. These episodes occurred for six or seven years.
“Because I see her every day, the cognitive deterioration wasn’t that obvious. I didn’t notice it,” says Mary-Anne.
“An initial visit to the GP confirmed she had experienced a number of TIAs, or mini-strokes, that diminished her cognitive faculties to a degree. Depression was mentioned. The possibility mam might have dementia never crossed our minds. It was some time later when she was diagnosed with Vascular Dementia, at 76.”
Mary was a keen golfer, a fit and healthy lady, who loved her fashion.
“She was only 76 when she was diagnosed,” says Mary-Anne, “a very young 76, who looked after herself diet- and exercise-wise all her life, so it was a huge shock to all of us.
“It seemed to us mam was too well, and too well- aware of everything to suffer from dementia; but it can strike anybody at any time.”
Mary was maternal, very involved in her family, her grandchildren, and her hobbies.
“Mam was always very soft and very placid. She was easy-going and she never gave out. Dad retired 14 years ago and they were both hale and hearty, enjoying doing things together and enjoying life in general.”
Ned Flynn took on another role.
“Dad got another job then!” says Mary-Anne. “He became Mam’s primary carer. It was a big step for him. Dad, who never did the cooking or the shopping, just had to accept it.
“He adores Mam, and he is very proud of her. They celebrated 54 years of marriage on April 19. I am the only girl in the family and mam and I were always very close; so it was particularly sad for me when she got dementia. Fortunately, my brothers and I live close to our parents which is a great help and support for dad.”
Bessboro Day Care Centre is a valuable support for the family too.
“Mam is a very sociable person, she always was, and she loves to engage with other people and she loves to participate in the activities at Bessboro Day Care Centre where she meets her friends,” says Mary-Anne.
“Dad drops her there on Mondays and goes off to play golf, when he has a few hours to himself. I drop Mam to Bessboro on Wednesdays; she is always happy to go there,” says Mary-Anne. “Even with the illness, Mam is extremely easy-going. She just goes with the flow. We are lucky.”
Mary looks forward to her days out to Bessboro where she can engage with others and take part in the activities there.
“The environment at Bessboro Day Care Centre is non-judgemental, which is safe and familiar to her,” says Mary-Anne.
“She loves the art and music therapies, which are very calming and soothing.
“Mam enjoys singing in the Carragline choral group and she knows all the words, so she likes participating in the singing sessions at Bessboro, and the Saturday Club provides a nice social outing for all of us.
“Mam is welcomed at the front door and she always feels very included. The staff at Bessboro Day Care Centre are very kind and always respond to mam. They are very respectful to her.”
Mary Flynn is used to the royal treatment.
“Dad adores her and he likes her to look her best,” says Mary-Anne.
“When she went shopping recently to a local boutique in Carragline, she couldn’t make up her mind on what dress to buy. Dad decided to buy her several dresses. The bill was over €700!”
Mary is a proud Cork woman.
“We lived in America for a while,” says Mary-Anne. “Then we moved to Limerick, before coming back to Cork.
“Mam was always very proud to be a Scoil Mhuire pupil. That, and winning in the Captain’s Prize in the golf club in Limerick, were what she was most proud of.”
Mary can reminisce about her glory days with her friends on her regular visits to Bessboro. “It is a social outing for her,” says Mary-Anne.
The day Care Centre provides a friendly meeting place where people can chat, relax, and reminisce.
“Having supports in place like Bessboro helps ease the situation,” says Mary-Anne.
A diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s can be devastating for families.
“Yes, it was very sad,” says Mary-Anne of her mother’s condition. “At the onset of her dementia, she was only 70.
“You lose the person you are familiar with all your life. And you grieve for that person.”
A dementia diagnosis can be the first unavoidable step towards losing your loved one. The things that bind you together — hopes, dreams, memories — fade away.
“I drop in to see Mam nearly every day,” says Mary-Anne. “It’s a great connection for her. If I miss a day, I Face-Time her.”
Sometimes, Mary looks for her daughter.
“When I go to visit Mam, she could say, Where’s Mary-Anne? Then I cough to remind her and she says, ‘Oh, there’s Mary Anne, and she starts laughing.”
Ned keeps his sense of humour in sickness and in health.
“Sometimes, mam can be bold and she gives dad a hard time,” says Mary-Anne. “She calls him Hitler! He takes it all in his stride. He has her on a pedestal. He always had.
“They have a place in the country. Dad, who likes to be active and is in good health at 79, loves to garden. Mam goes along with him. When she can’t keep up, she has a doze in the car.”
Mary keeps up with the younger generation.
“My daughters treat granny like they always did,” says Mary-Anne. “They call to her often and they chat about fashion and about what they’re up to.”
Mary is very much her own person.
I see resilience and stoicism in mam, and acceptance,” says Mary-Anne. “Sides of her character I didn’t see before.”
She adds that watching our parents age is inevitable.
“It is the circle of life,” she says. “And when they need support; it is wonderful to be able to avail of it. Bessboro has provided us with valuable support for mam.”
Therese Newman enjoys real job satisfaction; her work placement as an Art Therapist at Bessboro Care Centre, Cork, has instilled in her the desire to help others.
“I’ve worked with older adults before,” says Therese, from Douglas, who is a part-time third year MA student, studying Art Therapy at the Crawford College of Art and Design.
“My 24 weeks’ stint here at Bessboro is nearly at an end,” adds Therese, a mother of two grown-up daughters. “I really loved working with the clients here.
“Seeing how Art Therapy has benefited people with dementia and Alzheimer’s is very rewarding for me.”
Therese’s workplace is a haven of calm and tranquillity.
“The art room here provides a relaxing, calm environment for everyone,” she says.
“It is a nice, bright, small informal room. Low, soft music playing in the background has a soothing effect on the senses and it often triggers happy memories for people to share.
“We work together in small groups, sharing materials together for our art work. It is a nice, sociable experience, where there is no pressure.
“It is all about the process, the making of the product in the here and now. Some of the time we work in silence, which is helpful to ground as well.”
Therese’s artists are willing participants.
“There is no right or wrong,” she says. “And it is all about making choices — often when everyday choices have been lessened or removed for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
“Everyone chooses their own art materials to work with: paint, clay, pastels. We create a circle, where the message is all about the ‘self’ and what we can create within the circle.
“Often, people are reminded about their childhood, their past, and the art they create can reflect precious, happy memories.”
The roadblocks to verbal communication are bypassed through the artistic process and individuals can express themselves through their art.
“Often, people with dementia or Alzheimer’s are unsure of themselves, sometimes they are a bit anxious. Art therapy honours their life stories and restores and preserves the sense of ‘self’,” says Therese. “It gives the clients a chance to be themselves and to express themselves. Concentration and attention improves, as well the sense of touch; so Art therapy is a very helpful therapy.”
The artists like the familiar surroundings with their friends sharing a common activity.
“A sense of control over their environment is developed, which matters to people who are feeling anxious or who may lack confidence.”
Other things are developed through the process of Art Therapy. Relationships are built, empathy fostered, anxiety lessened.
“People like to reminisce and share stories with each other while engaging in their art projects,” says Therese.
The results of the art therapy sessions are amazing, portraying country scenes, seascapes, still life and portraits.
“Each piece of art is unique, a great achievement for each artist,” says Therese. “I often bring props to the art therapy sessions, like foliage or plants. Touching or examining the foliage or plants can trigger nice memories or nice thoughts for people to speak about.”
The artists’ wonderful creations are displayed and discussed.
“It is lovely for the client to see the end product of his or her own making,” says Therese.
“The sense of accomplishment is wonderful. The process of creating a painting or a model from clay is always enjoyable and it has a beneficial impact for each individual.”
Each creation is a personal achievement.
“Everybody here at Bessboro enjoys the Art Therapy sessions every Wednesday,” says Therese. “The process and the end result is a work in progress, triggering memories and reminders of treasured times.
“It was a joy to work here, where the focus is on the client and on the staff.”
And the perks are good too?
“Ah yes, we all enjoy a cuppa and a bun together when the job is done!”
NATIONAL TEA DAY
National Tea Day is coming up and Bessboro Tea Day takes place on Saturday May 11, when you can host a tea day in the home, workplace or your school. All profits go to services which support people living with dementia in your local area. To register contact 1850719820.