Helen Rochford-Brennan from Tubbercurry in County Sligo appeared on The Tommy Tiernan Show on RTE 1 TV at the end of January and made a huge impact with viewers after she spoke at length about living with Alzheimer’s/dementia and about all her own trojan work campaigning for people with the condition around the country. The lengthy interview made such an impact, in fact, that Helen has been invited and has now accepted an invitation to come here to County Roscommon on March 31st to speak about the way we, as a State, tend to treat people with Alzheimer’s.
Helen was just 57 when she got what she described as an “earth-shattering” diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. “It’s called Early-Onset” she says, “but to get a diagnosis is very difficult, I understand. It was hard to identify in the beginning because I was working and a busy woman. When I got the diagnosis, of course it was earth-shattering. I was in Galway and I was driving back to Tubbercurry and I was trying to think what I was going to say to Sean [her husband] and Martin [her son]. All that kept coming up in my head was that maybe in an undisclosed amount of time I may not remember them, or remember all the memories we shared along the way”.
One can only imagine the sense of fear and anxiety going through Helen’s mind as she made that fateful car journey. The problem in getting an early and correct diagnosis in the first place should not be underestimated either.
“One doctor would say yes, it was Alzheimer’s” she says, “but another would say no, that I was forgetful because I was doing too much as a mother, businesswoman and campaigner”. I think all of us, if we were really honest, could easily identify with that problem or dilemma.
Busy day life
In the mad busy world we live in today, there are days when I myself think that the condition that hit my own mother when she was in her 70s has chosen to come my way a little earlier. I am sure there are dozens of readers out there who go through days when they experience similar little breakdowns in the memory banks – whether it is the search for the car keys in the kitchen, the overlooking of an appointment with the neighbour, or just the loss of a colleague’s surname in the course of a conversation on the phone. It certainly affects me every week at some stage.
It is true to say that Helen’s life was indeed manic long before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She began her working life in the post office, but following a visit to her sister in the United States, Helen decided to emigrate, and spent over a decade living in Ohio and Kentucky. Helen did so well professionally over there that she quickly progressed to branch manager for her company. It was while she was on a trip back to her ancestral home in Tubbercurry that Helen met with the love of her life, Sean Brennan, who was visiting from London. The couple married and settled in the UK, where four years later, their son, Martin, was born. When he was nine years old, the Brennans decided to come back to Ireland, and it was there that Helen’s life was to turn to a ‘political role’ in the community development sense.
Very soon after they arrived home, Helen realised there was a lack of proper infrastructure, especially in relation to travel, in Sligo and the western region generally, so she committed herself to campaigning with the Tubbercurry Chamber, the Western Development Commission and the West On Track movement. On top of this she also ran a very successful B&B and restaurant business, and helped to establish an English-language school for Spanish students. There was literally never a dull moment for her and, as if to highlight that energy that flows through her veins, when she was 52 she started to study at university in the area of community development and theology.
All of this education and development led to a nine-year stint as MD of a national disability services organisation where she made a name for herself among her peers with her professionalism and communication skills.
Against this backdrop, the diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s was surely a hammer blow. “I was finally diagnosed in 2012 and I don’t remember how I told my husband and son in the end, but I do remember the terrible pain of it. There are still no services for people like me, although there are some services for people who are more advanced” she says.
Today she is stoic about her condition and what thousands of other people like herself are going through. “It is difficult to live with it but it is liveable with” she says. “You have to have strategies and I think that is what has sustained me, to be honest with you…working really hard every day and getting out in the fresh air and meeting people. You have to be pretty resilient and in particular, in the last year and a half I have had to be quite resilient because I was isolated at home”.
Helen is adamant that more support is needed for people with dementia in Ireland, especially those living at home who receive so little support. “We’re not supported to stay at home, because the policy for homecare in Ireland, as it stands, is take a shower and take your medicine” Helen says, “as long as I am clean and lipstick is on and I take my medicine, that’s grand. That’s not good enough. We need support to live at home as long as we can and to have that choice”.
Helen Rochford-Brennan’s diary is full all the time – despite what has happened to her. During the course of one calendar month, she travelled to Dublin on numerous occasions. She also spent time in London, Paris, Switzerland and Brussels, and now we are delighted to hear that she has made the time to travel to the Percy French Hotel in Strokestown on Thursday, March 31st at 1.30 pm where she will address the annual general meeting of the Roscommon Older Persons Network. Hope to see you there too.