‘We need to get rid of the stigma that surrounds dementia’

Richard McCourt takes part in the charity's Memory Walk.
Richard McCourt takes part in the charity's Memory Walk.
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After losing his mother to dementia, television presenter Richard McCourt tells Grace Hammond why he’s supporting the Yorkshire Post’s Christmas appeal.

With one telephone call, the lives of the McCourt family began to unravel.

Helen McCourt had been a medical secretary in Sheffield for 25 years and had a reputation amongst her colleagues for being both efficient and accurate. So when errors began creeping into her work, her boss knew there must be something wrong.

“He called my dad expressing concern, it just wasn’t like her at all,” says Helen’s son Richard, best-known as one half of the television double act Dick and Dom. “Mum was finally diagnosed in 2005 with a form of dementia known as Pick’s disease.

“We were all shocked by the diagnosis – we were told mum had dementia and were sent away. That was it, there was no guidance or support as to what to do next. We had to find out for ourselves.”

Richard, who has lent his support to the Yorkshire Post’s Christmas Appeal in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society, moved from his London base to Manchester in order to be nearer to the family home and gradually they began to make life as comfortable as they could for Helen.

“I think people should be automatically referred to the Alzheimer’s Society,” he says. “The Sheffield branch was great and really helped us to cope. Mum attended a day centre a couple of times a week and visited a memory cafe which she really enjoyed. It also meant that it gave my dad some respite from the massive task of caring for her 24 hours a day.

“Strange though it may seem, it’s often harder for the families and carers to cope than the person with dementia. You find it hard to understand what is happening to your loved ones but they are too confused to understand or worry about it.

“No two people with dementia are the same – they share similar symptoms, but every individual seems to react slightly differently.

“Once you get the diagnosis you go away and do lots of homework and that’s when it hits home. The more you find out, the more you come to realise what the future holds and that this is a terminal illness.”

While the early days may have been a struggle, the McCourts count themselves lucky as they eventually found a semi-retired nurse who lived nearby in Sheffield, which meant Helen could be cared for at home. The experience made the family acutely aware that they were in a minority and that there are simply too few trained dementia staff to care for the growing number of people with the condition.

“There is a huge gap in training to help support families that care for people with dementia at home,” says Richard, who is now an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society and has trekked the Great Wall of China, run the London Marathon and twice cycled to Paris to raise money for the charity. “Most private care agencies just don’t have qualified staff – we did try one but they were hopeless. This is a specialist skill and families need to know that they can find support from people who understand the specific needs of someone with dementia.”

One Alzheimer’s Society service, the Singing for the Brain music group, didn’t exist when the family was caring for Helen.

“I wish it had,” says Richard. “Mum would have loved it. She loves singing carols at Christmas and even when she could no longer communicate she would try to lip sync to them. She loved to entertain.”

All money raised from this year’s Christmas appeal will go towards funding services in Yorkshire and the Humber.

“Even if they have no first hand experience, people need to understand just how hard it is to care for someone with dementia and the huge strain it puts on a family,” says Richard. “We need to get rid of the stigma that still surrounds dementia and not shy away from people with the condition, but find out what they can to help. We can all make our communities a better and more understanding place to live.”

To bid in our Christmas charity auction, go to yorkshirepost.co.uk/appeal

Bidding closes on this week’s lots at 5pm today.

The auction is not the only way you can help. You can also send a donation by cheque, made payable to the Alzheimer’s Society, to: Yorkshire Post Christmas Appeal, Yorkshire Post, No.1 Leeds, 26 Whitehall Road, Leeds, LS12 1BE.

If you are a UK taxpayer, please consider enclosing a Gift Aid form. This makes every £1 you give worth an extra 25p by allowing the charity to claim back the basic rate tax on each donation. Forms can be downloaded and printed from www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/appeal.