My happiest childhood years were spent in a council house on a large estate on the western fringes of Cardiff. I attended the local church and was an enthusiastic member of their cub group. Now in later life, when I visit the city for the rugby internationals, I make a point of attending the early morning communion service: it is a heartening experience as the church is prospering under an exceptionally able vicar and offers an outstanding ministry to a disadvantaged local community.
The sick are remembered in prayers during the service and last time I went I recognised one of the names: it was a classmate of mine at the local primary school. He was a lively boy and a talented footballer – centre forward for the school team. He is now 70 and I was shocked when the vicar told me that my former classmate was struggling with dementia.
As a baby-boomer enjoying a comfortable retirement dementia is one of my biggest fears. I have no skills or talents beyond the cognitive and I dread the loss of this capability; I have been giving the matter a deal of thought – possibly, because of my anxiety, too much thought. There seems to be an endless flow of newspaper articles summarising, and almost certainly over-simplifying, the latest research. Unfortunately most often they are no help at all.
What has proved of value was an informal discussion I had with a local GP; he isn’t my doctor but is a personal friend. In summary his views were that we must all come to terms with a decline in our powers as we grow older; this decline embraces both cognitive and physical skills. The challenge is how we cope with that decline. The sound advice he gave me has been repeated a thousand times: keep yourself healthy by taking exercise, have a good diet, avoid excessive alcohol consumption and don’t smoke. In addition develop new mental skills by taking on new challenges. As he put it to me: ‘when dealing with patients I often think, (but cannot say), what part of this don’t you understand?’.
I can’t help but feel that my generation has developed an unfortunate mind-set. We seem to believe that we have a right to expect GPs and hospitals to offer cures for everything – irrespective of our own behaviour. You don’t have to be a Thatcherite to recognise that individual obligations must run alongside social provision.