Rachel McMahon – Her Story

Tony McMahon was a much-loved sports broadcaster on local radio in Limerick for 27 years. On March 18, 2005, he gave a live interview. He was in sparkling form. Three weeks later he was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s. He was just 58 years old. His wonderful daughter Rachel McMahon (above) has been his voice since Tony lost his – and since he subsequently lost his life to Alzheimer’s. Here, in her own extraordinary words, she paints a moving picture of her dad but also, of the barriers caregivers face.

When some people try to imagine what Alzheimer’s is, they don’t imagine my dad’s engaging performance on radio that day. They picture broken people. People who are losing parts of themselves. They imagine they have the ability to see dementia. To hear it.

But the day of the interview, you couldn’t hear Dad’s Alzheimer’s. You couldn’t hear that he’d lost the ability to read a clock. That he wasn’t able to make a cup of coffee. That he was driving on the wrong side of the road.

When you’re a sports broadcaster and commentator, you need to be as mentally athletic as the players are physically. And Dad’s mind was elite. So, to see his brain losing its power – and his voice losing its ability to speak – was all the more devastating for my family.

My father’s voice was always heard whether he was on air or not. He held great conversations with his circle of friends. He was informed and opinionated. He could croon a Frank Sinatra song. He was heard.

But those of us who worried about him were not heard by others for a long time. Fear, confusion, stigma got in the way. And we ourselves, were afraid. For a time, we were unable to speak about it to each other. And it isolated us from each other. It affected our wellbeing.

For those who mourn my father, they don’t just miss the man, the sports analysis, the charm, the humour, the songs – that voice. They miss his mind. But at 19, when you find out your parent has a progressive illness, you miss so much more. And when you can’t talk about it, you don’t know how you’re meant to feel or act. And no one else does either.

No one hugged me. No one knew what to say. My heart left the night I learned Dad had Alzheimer’s.

We made everything of the time we had with him. Dad always said he could die happy once he’d seen Munster lift the Heineken Cup. We witnessed that joy together in Wales. And his quality of life was enhanced by attending the Alzheimer Society’s Day Care Centre where he’d have a busy, enjoyable and social time twice a week.

He’d come home smiling. And that meant we were all smiling too. And words long silenced would break through, like: ‘The grub was lovely!” You’ve no idea how powerful those simple gifts were for him and for us – a smile released, a sentence spoken. That’s the priceless value of great services and support.

More recently, my grandmother was diagnosed with dementia. We’re now her caregivers. So, I need to be her voice now. She needs support and services just like my dad did. At the moment she’s availing of respite through the Alzheimer Society – a lifesaver for people with dementia and for families.

Caregivers are ‘all-in’ all the time. But we are only at our best when we are supported. Then we can help our loved ones live the best version of their lives. That’s what the Alzheimer Society helps us do. They do their best to fill in the massive gaps in services.

That’s why Tea Day is so very important.

So, I hope you’ll hear me now? Please host an event and help people with dementia live the best version of their lives?

Thank you.

Rachel is a member of the Dementia Carers Campaign Network which is supported by the Alzheimer Society of Ireland.

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