Alzheimer’s disease is getting a reputation for its merciless pursuit of the political elite of the 70s and 80s. Think Harold Wilson, Ronald Reagan and now Mrs Thatcher. One hopes that some good may come of it; a doubling of the efforts to find a cure would be a most suitable legacy.
Of their passing from this terrible disease what can one say?
My recollection of the day that former Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, died (24th May 1995) is that his battle with dementia in later life was barely acknowledged. A look at one or two obituaries from the time would seem to bear that out. Dementia did not even merit a footnote. On the other hand these tributes did rehearse the speculation at the time of his resignation in 1976 about his growing ill-health and its impact on his formidable memory. One very good reason why dementia was not referenced at the time is that his family never publicly acknowledged it. Or not as far as I am aware. Only in the past few years has his wife, Mary Wilson, talked about it and movingly so.
A sign of the times. Or not.
Only the year before – on 5th November in fact – former President Ronald Reagan had publicly disclosed that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Ever the showman, I think he would have liked the fact that his announcement coincided with fireworks night. In fact he probably would have done it deliberately if he’d known. The personal message he and Nancy sent to fellow Americans at the time is worth reading. It is hard to convey the seismic impact their statement had at the time for the many families who had cared for or were caring for someone with dementia.
Loneliness is one of the first battles we must all confront with any illness not just dementia. Having someone else out there who ‘we know’ and who is suffering from the same thing as us can bring considerable comfort.
So it was dispiriting how judgemental and disapproving commentators were when Carol Thatcher talked about her mother’s illness in 2008. Similarly the reactions to the sympathetic if premature portrayal of Mrs Thatcher in the ‘The Iron Lady’ starring Meryl Streep. It is also a little hard to put one’s finger on quite why this should be. British reticence? A modern inabillity to deal with the passing of life? A dislike of talking about illness? Pomposity?
The upshot is that while Mrs Thatcher’s dementia has undeniably been acknowledged by in the British media’s in their coverage of her death, it has only been in passing. Or so it feels to this writer. Curiously it is the foreign press who have focused more on her condition than their colleagues here at home. And they have done so to ask interesting questions about stigma, the under-reporting of the dementia and how ill-health is an important part of each of our stories? Surely there is nothing disrespectful about reporting it as fact but also about using it as a means to open up a discussion about something which affects millions of people across the world.
Still there is time for this to happen I suppose. So far the coverage feels all too familiar in its effortless and unthinking combination of the pre-prepared and the reactive – all at 100 miles an hour. I have no doubt that the best and most reflective pieces of journalism will come in the weeks ahead and that this is perhaps where Mrs Thatcher’s cognitive decline will receive appropriate treatment and for constructive reasons. The Prime Minister – who did not mention Alzheimer’s disease in his tribute yesterday – also has an excellent opportunity to invoke Mrs Thatcher’s memory for the common good within the context of his own Dementia Challenge.
Maybe, just maybe, there is another chapter to be written on Mrs Thatcher’s legacy yet.
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If this blog reads like a criticism of any of the families mentioned above then I am sorry, it is not meant to. It is a personal reflection prompted by my own experiences personal and professional with dementia over many years. All families make choices and who am I to judge.