Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Danny’s battle with dementia: Still able to recall in vivid detail the horrific murder of three policemen 30 years ago but unable to remember what happened yesterday

Danny Brown is one of the faces of Alzheimer's Society's Still Me awareness campaign and he tells Una Brankin how the charity has helped him come to terms with the incurable disease and continue to lead an independent life

On first impression, there is no evidence of Danny Brown's dementia at all. Bright-eyed and spry, with the gift of the gab and a hint of mischief, he gives an informative running commentary as he takes me on a tour of the Alzheimer's Society's facility in the sprawling grounds of Antrim's health centre.

It's only after an hour or so, that he begins to lose his train of thought slightly, and to tire a little.

The former accomplished salesman and angler is one of the 20,000-plus people in Northern Ireland living with dementia. That figure is expected to triple to 60,000 by 2051. Currently, more than 225,000 people in the UK will develop dementia this year - that's one person every three minutes.

Danny has no illusions about the prospect of a cure for his type of vascular dementia in the near future, but he is facing his plight with courage and good humour. He delights in showing off the neat garden he spends most days tending, a patch of green within the concrete dreariness of the health trust property. It is his pride and joy.

The 74-year-old was filmed last year among the glorious blooms, planted by himself, for the poignant Still Me advertisements, part of a campaign which has done so much to raise awareness of dementia in Northern Ireland. Danny also let the cameras into his nearby home, a small apartment festooned with notes to himself on the cupboards and doors, to remind him which day it is and what needs doing.

Diagnosed with vascular dementia in March 2014, the divorced father-of-two continues to live alone and independently, with the support of the Alzheimer's Society and his son, also named Danny, who appeared on the small screen and on posters with his father.

Danny Snr is roughly in the middle stage of dementia, a period characterised by short-term memory loss and some confusion, mini strokes, rapidly declining eyesight and hearing loss.

"Tomorrow, I might not remember you were here today at all," he admits. "But I can remember in vivid detail things that happened to me over 30 years ago, unfortunately, some very bad things."

A former sales representative for a fuel company, Danny spent many years on the road, travelling throughout Ireland. During the Troubles, he came under threat from paramilitaries while selling oil to building contractors employed by the security forces. And he witnessed some appalling violence in the mid-1980s - including the murder of three RUC officers, Karl Blackbourne, (19), Peter Kilpatrick, (27) and Charles Allen (37).

The policemen were eating ice-cream cones when they were shot at close range by an IRA assassin, while sitting in their armoured patrol car at Market Street, Newry, on July 26, 1986.

"I take sleeping tablets but I waken most nights reliving bombings, shooting, and the sight of dead bodies along the border," he says, closing his eyes.

"The time the policemen were shot dead in front of me in Newry, I was carrying £1m in cheques to be lodged. It was a hot day and I could see the police car with the door open and the three boys inside. I knew one of them, from going through the checkpoints along the road.

"Then, a man in a butcher's white coat and apron came along and when he got close to the car, he pulled out a gun. Bang, bang, bang. Stripped off the uniform and walked into Newry Cathedral. It was only 30 seconds but it's as fresh in my head as ever. So's the sight of dead bodies in the border areas I'd the misfortune to see when I was on the road."

The resulting anguish Danny experienced led to a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which compounds his dementia-related problems. He received counselling but his marriage floundered and he moved from the family's four-bedroom terrace in Antrim to the Newtownards home of his widowed aunt. As he'd been very successful in his sales career, he was able to buy a share in the bungalow and eventually inherited the property when his aunt died.

"I was a good provider - we had a holiday in Spain every year - but I regret that my job meant I couldn't spend more time with the children (Debbie, now 53, and Danny Jnr, now 50)," he says, downcast fleetingly. "I was always a hard worker - I went out to work at the Co-Op when I was 14-and-a-half to help my mother. My father was a steel worker at the shipyard.

"Through the Co-Op I got my driving licence at 17 and that helped me get more work as a salesman. I was very good at whatever I did and I ended up travelling all over Ireland selling oil. But, in 2007, I started to forget things. The doctor put it down to the pressures of work."

Once a keen angler, Danny was on a fishing expedition in Co Mayo in 2008 when he suffered a sharp pain in the right side of his head, "like a pin being stuck deep into the bone".

Subsequent scans revealed multiple minor strokes, the accumulation of which, over the next six years, led to vascular dementia.

"Before I got the full diagnosis, I told the doctor to tell me straight and I'd take it on the chin," he recalls. "He said, 'you will lose your memory, you will lose your eyesight, your brain is dying, you are dying. We can only hope to slow down the degeneration'.

"Well, for me, now at least I knew what was wrong - why I'd put the oven on for dinner and forget to put anything in it, and why I couldn't hold a pen, and why I was waking up with pains in the left side of my face. I do say bad words and there were days I'd be reduced to tears at the loss of control I was experiencing.

"The psychologist I was seeing said there was no more he could do for me. There was no advice, no support, no guidance offered. I never felt as lonely in the months after that."

Alarmed by his father's plight, Danny Jnr (who describes his father as a superhero) phoned the Alzheimer's Society and asked for help. The proactive charity immediately referred Danny to a support worker who co-ordinates activities for the small 'friendship group' of people with dementia who meet at the Antrim facility.

After four months in despair, Danny had been handed a lifeline.

"All of a sudden I had this great support worker, Lisa, and I could call on Monday to Friday, from nine to five," he explains. "I banter the life out of her and the other girls. They gave me all this support I didn't know about. I was doing things like mixing up my medication and taking the sleeping tablet in the morning instead of night time, and I'd be sitting dopey all day.

"So, they got me a Pill Pack Plus blister pack - that's a life saver and I'm in better form when I get seven hours' sleep. With the help I've been given, I've been able to stay living independently. As I told them, if I couldn't live on my own, I'd be buried."

Although Danny had never been interested in gardening previously, he discovered he had green fingers when he was given seeds to plant in his support group's garden.

"I began to spend a lot of my time at the log cabin, keeping it ship shape, and in the garden. The group usually go once a fortnight, but I go down every day because I live close by. I love it here. Everything else melts away.

"It gives me focus and something to look forward to every day. That's very important when you have dementia."

Ever grateful for the charity's support, Danny immediately volunteered his services when the Alzheimer's Society announced it needed group members to participate in the Still Me awareness campaign.

"I had my face on the back of a bus," he laughs. "I got phone calls from about 19 counties, saying 'I see you're still alive'. My cousin Hughie was stuck behind one - he was driving from Newtownards to Millisle, thinking: 'What the hell's he doing on the back of a bus?

"I hadn't seen him for ages. He rung me up and said he thought I was dead. The whole thing has actually pulled the family back together again. It was great fun. And I told them at the start I wasn't looking for money - just seeds or bulbs for the garden."

Before I leave, Danny gives me an Alzheimer's Society calendar featuring beautifully vivid photographs he took of his cherished garden in full bloom.

It is a reminder a person should never be defined by their illness.

Danny continues to do his own shopping, cooking, washing and ironing - which he assures me is meticulous. With the guidance of his support worker, he drove up until December of 2016, when he gave up his licence voluntarily due to his fading eyesight.

"There is a lot of stigma attached to dementia, even within family circles - I have never felt left out but I have seen people shunned," he remarks. "There has to a system out in place whereby anyone diagnosed with dementia is immediately referred to support groups.

"That would reassure those of us trying to live within the community that we are not alone or forgotten. If I can encourage even just one person to get in touch with the Alzheimer's Society today, then I'll be very happy.

"You see, I was in terrible fear of losing control, but as my son says, I'm a problem solver," he concludes. "And with a bit of help, I've got back in control. I don't dwell on the dementia. I keep myself busy and focused. I am still Danny Brown."

For more information on how you can help someone with dementia and where you can get help and support visit nidirect.gov.uk/dementia

See Danny's case study on: nidirect.gov.uk/articles/living-with-a- dementia and TV advert at: youtube.com/watch?v=yN4o8IMBfzk. For mini documentaries on the Still Me campaign go to: youtube.com/watch?v= to3zNZw1w9w and youtube.com/watch?v=Psryfgufswk and for Danny's tips for living with dementia go to:

youtube.com/watch?v=TfreiCP 1gV0&t=70s.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph