Alzheimer Scotland Social Media Ambassador Graeme Sutherland uses his platform to share his experiences of caring for his mum after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
It took a long time for Mum’s diagnosis to come. We’d noticed for months that things weren’t quite right and she had seen doctors for help – but they assessed she was suffering with severe depression after the untimely death of my Dad in 2013. She was heartbroken when he passed away so we accepted that grief was at the root of the problem.
As time went on though, we started to detect more unusual behaviour. Mum began to do things that were completely out of character and we wondered if there was more to it than depression. Once, while away on holiday, I noticed Mum spraying deodorant into her shoes and wearing dirty clothes – something she would never have done. Eventually, we received the diagnosis that Mum had a progressive stage of Alzheimer’s disease. She was just 59 years old. This confirmation was stark and distressing. We were so upset for Mum, but we were also worried about what the future would bring. She was such an independent character, always worked hard and had a long career as a biology teacher. We didn’t want to accept that any of that would change.
As the years have passed though, we have grown to understand more about the condition. We are more prepared for the impact it can have. I feel strongly about sharing this far and wide, that’s why I document it on social media– not only to raise awareness about symptoms but also to highlight that even after diagnosis, there can still be good times. Mum still finds joy in our company, she still enjoys going to new places and revisiting places we loved years ago. She doesn’t remember those times anymore but we take comfort that she’s happy and feels secure. It isn’t always like that – sometimes Mum cries a lot and that’s upsetting to witness. Those days are hard – physically and emotionally but we try to make the most of the here and now, making sure Mum is as content as possible.
Things have become easier now that COVID-19 restrictions are over. Those years were so difficult and sadly, lockdown exacerbated Mum’s condition. The long spells of social isolation saw her deteriorate more rapidly than she might have otherwise. Alzheimer Scotland became a lifeline for us, providing the support we desperately needed to help us understand what was happening with Mum. They called almost daily, arranged care packages, provided advice and guidance and even provided Mum with an iPad so we could maintain connections with friends and family.
Caring for Mum continues to be one of the most challenging experiences of my life. It’s an emotional rollercoaster – it will never get easier to accept the changes in her. Over the years, I’ve learned that in order to do so without becoming overwhelmed, I must take good care of my own mental health and physical well-being. Staying active has become my own lifeline; going to the gym and taking long walks while listening to music has provided a little bit of escapism. It helps to clear my mind and reduce stress. I’ve also become much more aware of healthier eating, focusing on whole foods and reducing my intake of processed options. I’ve really noticed the difference this has made to my moods and overall energy levels – it keeps me going.
Coping with Alzheimer’s is incredibly challenging, for the person living with the condition and their wider support network. But each day I remind myself that mental and physical health are so closely linked and by prioritising one, you can improve the other. This spurs me to achieve a healthier mind and body and with that, I feel more equipped to cope with any challenges that come my way.