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Opinion

My dementia is a gift; I allow myself to enjoy the here and now

Responding to a letter from actress Emma Thompson, Wendy Mitchell - who has lived with the disease for five years - explores how her dementia teaches an important lesson about living for today

Wendy Mitchell at her home in York

Wendy Mitchell was diagnosed with Young Onset Dementia in 2014 at the age of 58. Her memoir Somebody I Used to Know became a bestseller and struck a chord with thousands of people across the country. Last month, actress Emma Thompson wrote Wendy a letter exploring the idea that dementia is a gift in some ways, because it has allowed Wendy to forget who she was and to just be who she is now. Here Wendy responds to Thompson, writing that it’s allowed her to live the way we all should – in the present.

It may be strange to say that living with dementia has had its bonuses, but it’s true. Since getting this bummer of a diagnosis in 2014, I’ve found I can cope if I look for the positives. Thankfully I’ve always been a glass-half-full person, determined to hunt down the good in whatever situation I find myself in. I believe our personality has a lot to do with how we cope with the challenges that life throws at us, so I feel very lucky not to be someone who may be overwhelmed by the negatives.

The biggest lesson dementia has taught me, which could apply to anyone in any situation, is how important it is to live for today. I never dwell the past or what I may have lost, and I don’t allow myself to think for too long about the inevitable future. I can’t change either, so why focus on something over which you have no control? There’s much talk of reminiscence therapies, which use the senses to help those living with dementia remember the past, but I’ve never been a great advocate. Most of us have things in the past that we’d rather forget; my parents died many years ago, but I choose to remember their birthdays rather than their funerals. I suppose that is just my way of coping. 

There are many everyday activities that I find difficult, and it’s true that I can’t cook, drive or run as I used to. But I can use a microwave, I can catch public transport and I can walk. As for the future, well, the end stages of dementia will come when they come. By concentrating on the ‘can do’s’ and ignoring the negatives, I allow myself to enjoy the here and now. 

Why would I want to change a younger life that brought me my daughters, the two most precious people in my life?

People have often asked me if there was anything I would change about the way I used to live, in case I could have prevented this from happening. The simple answer is no. I did drink and smoke in my early years, but I have always been fit. I gave up drinking several years ago and haven’t smoked since my daughters were born. All of this just goes to show that dementia does not discriminate. It’s not sexist and it does not take wealth or intelligence into account. While it’s worth taking every precaution possible, if dementia decides to hold you captive, it will. Why would I want to change a younger life that brought me my daughters, the two most precious people in my life?

Dementia: The facts

  • There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK
  • By 2025 the number will be more than one million and two million by 2051
  • A person develops dementia every three minutes
  • 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have dementia and more than 40,000 people under 65 live with the disease

In writing Somebody I Used to Know, I simply wanted to hold a book in my hands and give it to my girls as a legacy. Instead I’ve received thousands of emails and Tweets thanking me, saying it has changed people’s perspective or taught them something they never knew. From people who are about to go through the diagnosis process saying “I’m no longer afraid”, to people whose loved ones have dementia writing that “your book has really opened my eyes to what my husband is going through; I feel I can help him now in a positive way”, I am so glad that my book has been able to offer solace and support.

The icing on the cake was to recently receive a beautiful note from the actress Emma Thompson. She congratulated me on the book and quoted Oscar Wilde by saying “every little action of the common day is what makes or unmakes character”.

I suppose that what I say to myself is a good mantra for anyone to live by, no matter what challenges they find themselves dealing with. At the times when dementia takes over, l always think that if today is a bad day, tomorrow might be better. As Emma Thompson told me, “the hope within the new is a vital part of existence”.

The paperback of Somebody I Used to Know (Bloomsbury, £8.99) is out now 

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