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‘You can make a world of a difference to a person with dementia’

By Alan Hendry

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Frank Stephen has already raised well over £8000 for Alzheimer Scotland, ahead of his 147-mile coastal walk this month. Picture: Alan Hendry
Frank Stephen has already raised well over £8000 for Alzheimer Scotland, ahead of his 147-mile coastal walk this month. Picture: Alan Hendry

Frank Stephen has a simple piece of advice for those who take on the role of carer for a loved one with dementia: “If anyone comes and offers you help, don’t be too proud to take it.”

Frank, a retired vet, gained an understanding of how valuable the support of friends and family can be after he began looking after his wife Moira at their home in Thurso.

She was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2019 and moved into Seaview House care home in Wick in August last year after her condition deteriorated.

The couple, both 74, will have been married for 48 years this July.

Aware of the vital services provided by Alzheimer Scotland, Frank has set himself the challenge of walking the 147-mile John O’Groats Trail over 14 days this month to raise funds for the charity.

“I didn’t want to sit around and mope at home,” he explained. “I’d always had in the back of my mind that I fancied walking the John O’Groats Trail and this has given me a real incentive.”

He is due to set off from Inverness Castle on Monday, May 13, reaching John O’Groats on Sunday, May 26.

“I’m putting in about 10 or 11 miles a day in training,” Frank said. “I think you could do it in less than 14 days, but I’ve decided to take my time and try to enjoy it and appreciate what I’m seeing.”

Having set a target of £2500 on his JustGiving page, Frank has already raised well over £8000.

“I’m very pleased and quite humbled,” he said. “The provision of care to people with dementia and their carers is very patchy. But Alzheimer Scotland is stepping in and trying to help people as much as they can, and they have a Caithness presence.

“I think it’s really important, the support side of dementia.”

Originally from Aberdeenshire, Frank moved to Thurso in 1973 to join D S MacGregor & Partners. He became senior partner in the veterinary practice and is known to many across Caithness and north Sutherland.

Moira at Talmine beach in 2021 with Arlo the Maltipoo.
Moira at Talmine beach in 2021 with Arlo the Maltipoo.

Moira (née Dunnet) is originally from Auchorn, Lyth. She is a retired primary school teacher, having worked at Pulteneytown Academy in Wick, Miller Academy in Thurso and later Watten. She used to enjoy Scottish country dancing twice a week.

Moira’s dementia was something that “crept up on us”, according to Frank. “I would say that from 2015 onwards she knew that there was something happening.”

Daughters Aileen and Joanna, both of whom live near Edinburgh, have been “fully supportive”. Frank said: “They’ve both come up with their two young children and spent as much of their holidays with me as they can.”

A good circle of friends also helped immensely. “It’s hard, but I think so much depends on friendships,” Frank said. “We were lucky that Moira had four really close friends who took her to the cinema, took her out at the weekend like they always did.

“She had retired teachers who always went for lunch on the last Thursday of the month – they kept doing that with her. Ex-colleagues and friends would drop in for a cup of coffee.

“Now it doesn’t sound much, but you don’t know how long a day can be if there’s just two people in the house, one of whom suffers from dementia and the other one who is the carer.

“Somebody dropping in for a coffee actually helps both of them. It helps the person with dementia, because it gives them a new interest and they often brighten up. But it also helps the carer because it can break their day up completely and it makes it a lot easier to cope with.

“If you have a bit of free time, and you know someone with dementia, it’ll cost you nothing but it can make a world of a difference to the person who has the dementia.

“If you can come and take the person who has dementia out for a run in the car, and leave the carer with a couple of hours to themselves – brilliant. Just little things like that will make a huge difference.

“We were lucky because Moira had a tremendous circle of friends who went above and beyond, really. And my friends were very good as well.

“We got half an hour’s care each morning from NHS Care at Home. They would come in, get Moira up, shower her, dress her and so on, and you have no idea the value of that half-hour – the difference it made to my life. It gave me half an hour in the morning to just clear my head, sort my mind, and prepare for the day ahead which we knew was going to be challenging.

“The carers we got were excellent.”

Frank will set off on May 13 to begin his 14-day fundraising coastal walk from Inverness to John O’Groats. Picture: Alan Hendry
Frank will set off on May 13 to begin his 14-day fundraising coastal walk from Inverness to John O’Groats. Picture: Alan Hendry

Reflecting on the deterioration that made moving into a care home the best option for Moira, Frank said: “You feel really guilty and you almost begin to feel a failure, because the person has gone into a care home. I know that at the time I certainly felt it.

“But what I would like to emphasise is that actually once Moira was in the care home I could see that they could provide things that there’s no way I could do at home. She was always through in the lounge and there were things going on in her life that were giving her an interest, but there wouldn’t have been at home.

“At home it had reached the point that the only thing that I could get her interested in was saying ‘Alexa, play some music’. She was actually far better off in the care home so then I realised that you weren’t really a failure, it had just moved on to the next stage.”

He added: “I think the standard of care at Seaview House is very good and they’re very welcoming to visitors.”

Frank has found that it can be “a huge source of help” for carers to support each other.

“If anyone comes and offers you help, just take it,” he said. “Don’t be too proud to take it and don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m not needing it quite yet, but I might need it in the future,’ because you’ll maybe find that in the future it’s not available when you want it.

“I’d like to encourage folk to be open about it.

“Moira would have always been quite private about her health, but in a situation like this I think she would want the message out there as well.”

Sponsor sheets for Frank’s coastal walk fundraiser are in vet surgeries in Wick and Thurso, as well as Newsbeat in Thurso and Our Wee Shop at Westfield.

He said: “If it helps some of the people out there who are trying to deal with it, I’ll be happy.”

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