'She asks me who I am – and I'm her husband'
Alzheimer's changed everything for Ian and Mary Winship. But after 50 years of marriage, they have an unbreakable bond, says David Graham
Tuesday 30 March 2010
Pucker up dear and I'll put your lippy on," Ian Winship affectionately instructs his wife Mary. She playfully blows kisses at him as the former steeplejack deploys the tube of lipstick with surprising ease. It's just one of the many skills, once foreign to the 73-year-old, which he has had to acquire since Mary, 66, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease six years ago.
"I find myself talking to people about recipes," admits Ian with a wry smile on his face. "Mary used say to me, 'We need a new iron.' I'd say, 'Mary, my mother had an iron for 30 years we can't need a new one.' I was just that used to getting it done for me."
They have been married for 50 years and the closeness that has underpinned such a strong bond is still very much apparent in every exchange between them – their constant lighthearted teasing emanates a cheerful warmth.
Ian talks enthusiastically about holidays abroad the couple, from Abronhill, Cumbernauld, once took, all of which were documented at length by Mary in her diary upon their return. They even bought a camper van with dreams of touring the continent throughout their retirement.
Hill walking is a great passion of Ian's, something he attributes to his time as a paratrooper. Evidence of this is dotted around the couple's immaculate, cosy home, thanks to their proudly-displayed paintings and sculptures from trips to conquer the Himalayas and the Italian Alps.
Ian's demeanour becomes serious when he concedes he doesn't have time to indulge his favourite pastime these days because caring for his beloved partner has become his primary concern. "Mary can't do anything for herself anymore," he explains. "I have to feed her, dress her, wash her. It's like having a child, we can't have a conversation now. It's 24 hours a day I have to look after her, I barely get any sleep."
He continues: "If it was another medical condition or cancer the nurses would have been at the door but because it's this, as a carer, I'm left on my own. It's trial and error – if something doesn't agree with her I have to just work that out myself. I think it's only becoming known how serious this condition is now since people are living longer."
The couple's three children, Fiona, David, and Ian, help as best they can, but the only regular respite Ian receives is when volunteers from the Alzheimer Scotland organisation take Mary out twice a week for a few hours. "I couldn't praise them enough," says Ian. "They're always trying to come up with new ways to stimulate sufferers, and that's what keeps them going. Mary loves to sing, we've got tambourines and musical bits and pieces that the carers play with her. It's fabulous."
Ian keeps a diary detailing Mary's state of mind each day. In an entry in February of this year he wrote: "I have long feared the day that Mary will no longer recognise me, and today that day is here. She will ask me my name, and what's my wife's name." An extract such as this, an insight into the difficult reality of living with such a devastating illness, reveals just how painful life can be for the loved ones of a sufferer.
It is obvious however, after spending only a few minutes in Ian's company, that he retains a very positive outlook on life. "There's always someone who has it worse than you, that's what you've always got to remember," he tells me.
The Joint Dementia Initiative in Falkirk runs a weekly café where sufferers and their carers can interact and support one another. "It makes such a difference," says Ian. "It's stimulus; that's what stops them going downhill as quickly as the sufferers who are sedated all the time. Mary just loves to go there and sing; at first it was embarrassing but now they all join in. It's a tremendous support to be able to speak to carers who are going through the same thing. People have come from Hong Kong and Germany to see the place because it's so well run."
The Scottish Government announced a new Charter of Rights for dementia sufferers last month, which Ian hopes will change attitudes towards the illness. "People say they understand but they don't really know what you go through and what happens," he explains. "I hope it will help – anything giving more support than there is at the moment has to help. It's one thing to talk about it but it's more difficult to get it into practice."
There's a noise at the door as Mary and her carer return. She's full of life as she sits down and tells Ian she had a blueberry muffin and a hot chocolate at the coffee shop. "You're a creature of habit aren't you?" he teases.
"Yes, but I like my habit," Mary quickly retorts. Ian jokes: "Shame you're not wearing a habit, I could be off to a warmer climate."
"Behave," comes Mary's reply, with a cheeky smile cracking across her face.
"It's no fun to behave," Ian pokes back.
"That's why I'm telling you to," concludes Mary, satisfied with her victory.
It's a fantastic sight to behold: despite her condition, she can still be as sharp as a tack in response to her husband's teasing.
As Ian walks me to the front door he gestures towards the living room. Mary and her carer are laughing and joking about the day out they've had together. "Listen to that in there," he says. "If you go to most of these support places they're just left sitting on their own, but just listen to that. She's chatting away, she's alive in there. That's just what she needs."
If you would like to know more about the support offered by Alzheimer Scotland, call their helpline on 0808 808 3000 or visit www.alzscot.org
David Graham: Winner of the Wyn Harness Prize
The Wyn Harness Prize for Young Journalists was established in November 2008 in memory of The Independent's former assistant editor, Wyngate Harness, who died from an inoperable brain tumour in 2007.
David Graham's feature impressed the judges with its "unusual approach to a traditional subject and a sensitive use of quotes and language which brought the article to life". David Graham, 24, finished a post-grad in journalism at the Strathclyde School of Journalism last June, following a brief career in banking. He now works for a local paper in Scotland and has just completed a work placement at The Independent.
He says: "I chose to write about Alzheimer's as I recently lost someone very close to me to the disease and it really struck me how little coverage it receives. There is so little awareness about how devastating a condition it is for the sufferer and everyone around them. It's very traumatic to watch as the person you once knew and loved slowly disappears before you. In a way, it can be worse than a sudden bereavement. We are years and years behind where we should be in terms of research into the condition and the development of treatments; however, through increasing awareness, that can only improve."
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