January 27 2015 Latest news:
Saturday, March 22, 2014
Alzheimer’s is cruel – certainly for the sufferer but also for family and friends who ‘lose’ the person they love. Lamorna Good tells Steven Russell about the shadow it’s cast – and of her determination to fulfil her husband’s dream
Michael Good, born in 1943, was always fascinated by stories of the war. As a boy, he spent many happy hours on Thorpeness beach, collecting fragments of old coastal defences. As a young man working in London, he join the Honourable Artillery Company – part of the Territorial Army – serving for 16 years and becoming a major.
It’s fair to say military history was a passion. Mike built up a library of 500 books – he was particularly keen on the First World War – and went on to research and stage battlefield tours.
In 2005 he began researching the names on the memorial in his beloved Aldeburgh, keen to uncover the stories behind the 84 men and one woman who lost their lives about 100 years ago.
Late in 2006 he outlined his progress during a talk to the local history society.
It was then that wife Lamorna realised, for the first time, there was something wrong.
“He managed to muddle through that talk but did have two or three minutes of opening his mouth and not being able to get words out. He was somebody used to talking. He’d been mayor. It was quite devastating.”
About two and a half years later he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the most common cause of dementia, at the early age of 65. The disease progressively damages the brain, causing symptoms such as memory loss and mood changes.
“It’s very sad seeing someone with whom you did so much disappearing. The Mike I married has gone. I made a list for you of all the things we did, like ski-ing and sailing. And he had a lovely old MG and we went out in that.”
He’d been fine (ish) after that initial scare at the history society meeting, apart from sometimes being unable to get the odd word out. “Yes, a little bit forgetful, but he could still drive and could still talk about interesting things.”
Life carried on, but there were tricky moments. Friends with whom he went fishing worried about his memory, for instance, and there was a sad moment during a battlefield tour in Virginia when he couldn’t sort out directions.
As it became clear help was needed, Lamorna says she was surprised there wasn’t a clearer strategy to deal with dementia sufferers.
Her husband didn’t accept he had a problem, she says, but was persuaded to see a doctor in London. Tests confirmed Alzheimer’s.
“When the neurologist told us, we all cried. Not big tears, but tears.” She and Mike spent the next few months putting their domestic affairs in order. For Lamorna, it meant getting to grips with household finances. “I am rubbish with numbers. I can do words and I can do colours, but numbers defeat me. Poring over a bill, I just find that hell.”
She feels there’s still a stigma attached to a condition such as Alzheimer’s.
One of the first people she told, after diagnosis, had known Mike a long time. “She said ‘Oh, I’d better not come any closer. It might be catching’, turned on her heel and walked off. We’ve never seen her since.”
Lamorna says the Alzheimer’s Society started leaving the word “disease” out of its name so it didn’t fuel such misconceptions.
Happily, some wonderful people stuck with them, and they made new friends who were supportive.
For a while, the Goods were able to lead a normalish life. But two years ago, between May and June, Mike “disintegrated”.
“A psychiatrist called it the waterfall moment. With Alzheimer’s you’re on a plateau, happily paddling along for a bit, and then suddenly, from one week to the next, you do this huge drop.
“Life changes completely. I became frightened. The last straw for me was when he kicked the dog, who was his best-beloved. It wasn’t Mike. Poor man.”
The Alzheimer’s Society says more than a third of people with dementia behave aggressively at times, particularly in the moderate to severe stages.
Lamorna says her husband’s “first big psychotic event” came two summers ago. During “the most scary four hours” she sought refuge in a neighbour’s garden, reluctant to call the police because she feared Mike would have to be secured in a straitjacket “and I didn’t want that”.
Aggressive episodes made it hard to keep carers. “He’d hide knives down the bed and things like that.” Sometimes, Lamorna retreated to the nearby High Street until things calmed down. “That became my solace. I was thinking ‘Thank god I don’t live in the depths of the country,’ which I used to. The people in the shops were always marvellous. They all knew.”
She resisted suggestions to put her husband in a care home, drawing strength from the support of a psychiatric nurse and Mike’s social worker, but living on tenterhooks took its toll and she lost a stone over three weeks.
Inevitably, Mike eventually had to move to a care home – last June. Lamorna visits regularly, but admits it’s been a roller-coaster, “because sometimes he didn’t know who I was”. He was often so agitated he couldn’t sit still. “You’d try to talk to him and he’d get up and walk off. You’d walk with him, but he wouldn’t know you were there.”
Last November he became very ill with drug-induced Parkinson’s apparently caused by the anti-psychotic drug he’d been taking for 14 months to control aggressive behaviour.
Lamorna says the symptoms included rigidity – with his head and neck stuck at 90 degrees – difficulty chewing and swallowing, tremor, and a shuffling gait. Happily, after coming off the drug, he’s grown calmer, put on weight, and can walk. “He seems quite content and he smiles. He can’t really talk. He tries to. So I try to talk to him, but I’m not brilliant at that. I just hold his hand; tell him about the dog…”
There are, she concedes, few glimpses of the “old” Mike. “There’s a little more life to his eyes now, but I can’t say there’s that much connection. I hug him, stroke him, hold his hand, and he likes that – and holds my hand back.
“When we walk, as we did last week, he took my hand without prompting, and that made me so happy.” Lamorna’s downsizing, and letting half the house. “Then I thought ‘What happens if they find a drug overnight that reverses the fortunes of people with Alzheimer’s? Mike might be very upset, because that was his favourite bit of the house.’
“We had a wonderful, warm, sitting room. He had one side with his books and I had the other side with my books and it was a really cosy room where we sat, watching telly, the dog in between us on the sofa. Very happy.”
Of course, Alzheimer’s ended Mike’s work on the memorial names. It seemed his dream of honouring the 85 was over.
Then, last year, his wife was doing some garage-tidying and came across a couple of boxes of his papers. She also read in the EADT about the Framlingham war memorial and learned that a genealogist called Simon Last had written a couple of books about it. She got in touch and Simon grasped the nettle – adding detail to Mike’s findings. “It’s been magical,” says Lamorna.
The result is a book called Aldeburgh War Memorial – The Story Behind the Names, 1914-1918. It honours the memory of the servicemen and the sole woman and is also a tribute to Mike.
By coincidence, the first bound copy has popped through Lamorna’s letterbox while we’ve been talking at her Aldeburgh home. She unwraps it eagerly.
“Oh, I’m going to cry. It’s Mikey’s book, not mine. And good on you Simon. You’re such a clever boy,” she says, turning the pages. “I took it to India to proof-read and I had to keep stopping because it made me sad. These young men, one after the other…”
Mike Good was certainly a “doer” before Alzheimer’s played its cruel hand. Through the Territorial Army he made a great bunch of friends, with whom he had plenty of adventures, says Lamorna. “They owned a balloon, which they flew. They all had old sports cars, which they used to arrive at camp in.” She laughs at memories of helping Mike prepare for military dinners, having to pull down the legs of his tight dress-trousers as he lay on the bed!
They first met 26 years ago, at a party. Her best friend from schooldays had married Mike’s greatest pal from the army. Mike and Lamorna, who had been widowed at 42, married in 1990.
Mike’s parents had roots in Essex but long had a home on the Suffolk coast, too – adoring Thorpeness and other places. They moved up full-time when their son was 16. “Mike always thought of here as home.” He ran the family property investment company and life was good. “He had a beautiful flat in Pimlico and a very old yellow Porsche, very old Range Rover, and a 33ft boat on the river here – shared with a friend; he never bought anything new!” But then he virtually lost his shirt when the insurance market Lloyd’s of London, where Mike was a “Name” (a member), had a bad time. He had to sell everything, says Lamorna.
The couple lived in her Hampshire cottage, visiting Suffolk to see his mother. When things were back on a more even keel, they added a home in Aldeburgh. Lamorna’s attachment to Hampshire was deep, though, and for a long time they split their time between there and Suffolk.
As the 1990s drew to an end, Aldeburgh finally won out and they moved up permanently. “I lay on the lawn one summer, with my legs in the air like a dog, and said ‘That’s it. I submit!’” she laughs.
“No more melting butter in the back of the car. No more drooping flowers. I was so mean, I would always bring the flowers and the contents of the fridge up and down.” It’s worked out well, though, says Lamorna, an artist. “I love it here. It’s very energising. I’m not a bridge or a golf player, but there’s so much else to do. I have done so much more since I came here.” Mike joined the Aldeburgh lifeboat beach crew, and the town council, and was mayor about a decade ago. He loved the river and played golf.
Lamorna’s advice to anyone suspecting Alzheimer’s is to seek a speedy diagnosis. “They do think the Aricept medicine can help people keep going for longer. Get it (the diagnosis), deal with it, and go on leading a normal life while you can. But you’ll find your friends might drop away.
“David Cameron’s right. We’ve got to change the way people think of it, because it will happen to one in three of us who are now aged 60 or over.”