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Birthday wish: the woman who changed everyone's ideas about her dementia

People with dementia can be more resilient and comprehend more than nurses and family believe

People with dementia can be more resilient and comprehend more than nurses and family believe

Millie (not her real name) had such severe dementia that she remained in a foetal position in bed. She had no real awareness she might make noises when turned and she would (usually) swallow food or fluid put in her mouth, but she didnt really interact.

Difficult life

Millie had a difficult life. She had wanted to study medicine, but her family were unable to fund her education; instead, at age 14, she went into service to earn money for her family.

Married soon after turning 20, Millie quickly had children while continuing to work during the second world war. Her husband was in the RAF, but tragically lost his life. She always kept his photo by her bedside.

As Millie approached

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People with dementia can be more resilient and comprehend more than nurses and family believe

Millie (not her real name) had such severe dementia that she remained in a foetal position in bed. She had no real awareness – she might make noises when turned and she would (usually) swallow food or fluid put in her mouth, but she didn’t really interact.


Picture: iStock

Difficult life

Millie had a difficult life. She had wanted to study medicine, but her family were unable to fund her education; instead, at age 14, she went into service to earn money for her family.

Married soon after turning 20, Millie quickly had children while continuing to work during the second world war. Her husband was in the RAF, but tragically lost his life. She always kept his photo by her bedside.

As Millie approached her 100th birthday, her family sent off for a greeting from the Queen. As we cared for Millie, we told her that her big birthday was approaching, but she seemed to understand little about it.

Understanding

On the day of her birthday, her family came and celebrated with Millie. She opened her eyes and smiled, but went back into the familiar fog. Her granddaughter said: 'I don’t think she understood.'

But it seems that she had. Over the next two weeks she stopped eating and her skin started to break down. Finally, at the age of 100 years and two weeks, her frail body gave up.

Millie knew it had been her birthday and once she had made 100, she could let go without regrets.

In her diary she had written this goal: to get a birthday card from the Queen. She had chosen to keep death at bay until she was ready.

As healthcare professionals, we can arrogantly assume we understand everything. However, people like Millie remind us people can be stronger than we thought.

About the author

Bethann Siviter is an independent nursing consultant, Birmingham

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