Helen & Michael Higgins – Their Story

Speaking with Helen and Michael Higgins (above), you can feel their natural warmth – and their vitality for life. This is all the more remarkable when you learn that in the past they have faced personal traumas that would have blunted the optimism of most of us. And despite the more recent challenge of Michael’s dementia diagnosis, their winning personalities and humour still shine through. As does their generous praise for the local Alzheimer Society’s Day Care services that Michael attends.

Helen says the day Michael was diagnosed, the bottom fell out of their lives.

“We were brought into a room and told that he had Frontotemporal Dementia. They said ‘Here’s a prescription, come back in 3 months. Make your will and get your affairs in order’. We walked out that day into a gulf of fear and confusion. We didn’t know where to turn for help.”

Michael and Helen’s daughter Hazel returned from the US to help with Michael’s care. But after a year of failing to access services – and with the economic necessity looming to return to the US – she made a last ditch phone call that opened a door to the Bessboro Day Care Centre. Helen describes it as ‘a life saver‘.

Michael struggles to find the words to describe the place – not because of his dementia – but because he wants you to really understand how crucial a difference Bessboro makes to both their lives:

“For me, it’s such a warm, friendly supportive place. I was getting more and more house-bound so the centre lets me mix with lots of great people. The staff there – every one of them – are fantastic. They spot immediately if someone is down. They’re full of hugs and cuddles. They’re real professionals but they’re lovely, caring people as well.”

Helen says they affectionately call Bessboro ‘the club’. She is forthright about the need for services for people living with Alzheimers and other forms of dementia:

“Dementia doesn’t just affect the person. It affects the family and especially the carer. If I didn’t have these fantastic services, I couldn’t do it on my own. It’s like climbing a mountain every day. Bessboro completely reduces my stress because I know he’s so well cared for and I get a break. And I’ve made my own pals there among other carers. But what about people in other parts of Ireland who don’t have services?”

Michael, who is also an active member of the Irish Dementia Working Group (IDWG), which is supported by The ASI, knows how important Bessboro and other services are for both people with dementia and carers:

“I have a fantastic wife and to be honest I don’t know where I’d be without her. She’s a saint (‘I’m recording this quips Helen’). But she needs a break and support too.”

Michael, engages in lots of the activities on offer – the chats, reading, art and board games. Helen pokes fun at his growing fondness for his regular table tennis match. Through the centre Michael has also discovered a talent he never knew he had. Even

Helen is astounded: “He started singing one day at the club and he had an amazing voice. ‘Cork’s Michael Bublé’ they call him!”

Michael and Helen are living proof that people coping with dementia need tailored services that deliver critical benefits. Michael sums it up in his own wonderful words: “You can get very isolated – people don’t realise you’re still here and still living life. The centre helps me feel just that. The staff and patients there understand what you’re going through. There’s no judgement, just support and care and love. I can feel normal. I can be myself.”

Well, Cork’s Michael Bublé…you can sing it!

Michael Higgins is a member of the Irish Dementia Working Group (IDWG)

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