Richard Holt – 1984 Speech on Alzheimers

Below is the text of the speech made by Richard Holt, the then Conservative MP for Langbaurgh, in the House of Commons on 9 April 1984.

One thing that all hon. Members would agree, irrespective of politics, is that we wish each other long and healthy lives. In doing so, we always regard our responsibilities and duties to society.
There is today a slowly growing awareness of a disease called Alzheimer’s disease, which was first diagnosed in 1907 and which has taken 75 years to become the subject of comment in the House. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It is incurable and irreversible. Dementia is a progressive decline in the ability to speak, to think, to remember and to learn, with an accompanying loss in the capacity for deliberate actions and movement. A once active and responsible adult will no longer remember his spouse and children, will not be able to maintain even a simple conversation, will become disoriented, even in the familiar surroundings of his home, and completely incontinent. In short, as an adult, he will revert to infancy.

Dementia is not a normal part of the ageing process. Rather, it is a disease with a variety of causes and a wide range of symptoms. The likelihood that an individual will be affected by a dementing disorder increases with age, but this does not mean that it is inevitable.

Alzheimer’s disease and stroke-associated or multi-infarct-dementia, which together account for 85 per cent. of all the incurable dementing illnesses, should be diagnosed only after the exclusion, by a series of tests, of other causes of the problem, such as poor nutrition, metabolic disorders, side effects of drugs, chronic alcohol abuse and so on. Diagnosis of AD, with all its catastrophic implications for both sufferer and family, is too often made without adequate investigation.

It is late and we have had a long day, but I would not be doing full justice to the sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease, and more importantly to those who will suffer in future, if I did not to some extent underline the problems by referring to case histories. It would, of course be wrong in any way to identify the affected people. In one instance a man aged 38 —Mr. D, a qualified architect with a large well-known company — contemplated group and individual suicide on learning that he had AD. His wife is totally unable to cope with the change in her family life. That is an unusual and rare case, because it affects someone in a younger age group. Normally, the disease is found in older people. Obviously, the greatest stress affects not only the sufferers but their loved ones.

I have a short letter that I wish to place on record. It states: I am very sorry but your wife has Alzheimer’s Disease. Unfortunately there is no cure. A lot of care will be needed. A simple statement. I had stopped work because I could not cope. My wife had shown a lack of interest in household affairs which was quite out of character. After a few months she lost the ability to carry out the most simple household tasks. Any attempt to teach anew was met with anger and tears. Dressing became very difficult, but when assistance was given, she replied with anger and not thanks. This was very perplexing after years of close relationship.

As the disease had progressed, toilet and bathing became a problem. The use of the toilet was forgotten, and I had to insist on regular visits. When assisting with the removal of clothing extreme anger was displayed. The problem is worse when a wife is required to deal with her husband; the stronger and aggressive male usually wins, making the toilet problem a nightmare. My efforts to see to my wife in the bath were frantically resisted. Hair washing was a particular problem, and rinsing off shampoo was rewarded with screams as the water flowed over her face. This was a very frightening experience and had to be handled with care. Toilet problems were at their worst when away from home. My wife quite often entered the conveniences and refused to allow anyone to help her to use the toilet, usually with disastrous results. Such events continue until finally the person ebbs away and dies. That report was written not by an emotional, unrealistic person, but by a senior police officer who had to retire from the police force to look after his wife in this sad and demented state.

The cause of this condition is not known. It is only after a person has died, when there is a post-mortem, that it can be shown absolutely for sure that he has suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, but the likelihood is that when the symptoms manifest themselves, the person has begun on a course that ultimately results in death.

There is the mild period, followed by the moderate period, followed by the severe period. The average length of life after the disease has been diagnosed is about two and a half to five years. Some people have been known to live longer, but that means that the deteriorating period is more severe and, equally, that the strain on those responsible for the individual’s care is even greater.

In Cleveland, in my constituency, we have today a branch of the Alzheimer’s Disease Society which is working wonders in providing a form of adult creche to enable those suffering from the dementia to be brought in and looked after on a daily basis, thereby enabling the carers themselves to have time off, for surely when the disease strikes one member of the family it equally strikes another.

I have known of people who have suffered from dementia and have seen for myself how they have deteriorated and died in a most miserable way. Twelve months ago, before I came to this House, I had never heard of Alzheimer’s disease and did not know what it was. It has only recently been brought to my attention. During the past week, since my name appeared for an Adjournment debate on the subject, I have been spoken to by many colleagues, some with knowledge of relatives who have suffered and died from Alzheimer’s disease, and others who were totally unaware of what the disease was and what its manifestations caused. It is because of that latter group of people that I have taken the opportunity of an Adjournment debate to bring to a wider audience the need for an understanding of it.

Everyone in society today, I believe, understands what multiple sclerosis is and what the initials MS stand for, and can recognise symptoms in people and know the care that is required. Regrettably, there has been far too much confusion historically between the normal ageing process and Alzheimer’s disease, to such an extent that we as a society have failed so far to provide sufficient care, to obtain sufficient knowledge, or to do sufficient research into the subject.

I do not make a special plea for additional funds and resources for Alzheimer’s disease over and above the many other worthy causes which require as much funding as they can be given, but I urge upon the Government, upon all hon. Members of this House, and upon people beyond this House, a greater understanding and awareness of the problem. It is one which can and will affect as many as one in 10 of our population. We have an aging population. Therefore, the manifestations will become greater. It is an incurable disease as things stand at the moment. Research is being carried out and many people are now turning their attention to seeing whether there is any way in which there can be a diagnosis in the first instance and a cure in the second. But until such time as either of those things come to pass, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that all people become more widely aware of the problems of Alzheimer’s disease and the associated problems for the people who have to care for those who are suffering from that disease.