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'Mum has dementia, but when she goes to the cinema it brings back so many memories to her'

Ahead of Queen’s Film Theatre’s screening of the first in its dementia friendly film series this Saturday, Lee Henry reports on how a love of movies has helped reinvigorate one Belfast woman with the condition.

Margaret Lowry was a happy, active mother of five when her family began to suspect that something was wrong with her health.

A widow for 25 years - her loving husband John, a former Naval officer, died following a stroke in 1987 - Margaret had spent her working life welcoming patrons to Stewart's wholesalers on Belfast's Newtownards Road as a shop girl and her downtime indulging her love of crafts, baking, cinema and, of course, her boisterous brood.

"But her behaviour began to change," recalls Margaret's youngest daughter Diane (52), who worked in accounts at the time.

"She didn't want to go out. She didn't like joining in conversation. She would tell the same stories over and over again, word-perfect every time, and they were all from her youth.

"She forgot how to do things that she was great at doing and she gave up sewing, cooking, those kinds of pastimes.

"Everything around the house had to be filed away in a certain place, or folded in a certain way, or she would get upset. She looked like she was cross all the time and that was not my mum at all."

In 2011, concerned for their mother's mental health and physical wellbeing, Diane and her brothers, Alan (62) and John (69), and twin sisters Flo and Margaret (68), determined to get to the root of the problem.

They accompanied Margaret to the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust's Knockbracken Health Park on the Saintfield Road and held their breath.

The diagnosis was swift and certain. Like 900,000 other people currently living in the UK, Margaret was afflicted with dementia.

All of the symptoms that Diane and her siblings had observed in their mother over the past number of years suddenly made sense. Nevertheless, their lives changed overnight.

"Absolutely," confirms Diane, who, as a result of her mother's diagnosis and with no children of her own to mind, gave up her career in accounts to care for her mother full-time.

"She simply couldn't be left on her own.

"These days, mum doesn't always know who people are. She relies on others to make decisions for her and she is also losing hold of her old memories.

"As well as that, she sees things in the shadows or in light and you cannot convince her that nothing is there.

"It's been a challenge. You try and get her to focus on something else."

The most useful, helpful, transformative thing for Margaret to focus on, as Diane soon discovered, was the cinema screen. It made sense. Film had always been a part of the Lowry lives.

While keeping house and staying on top of her myriad domestic duties, Margaret would go about her business, always with a movie playing in the background.

Cinema was a passion of hers and she passed that passion on to her children.

Close to stir crazy after months of experimenting with different courses of medication and watching her mother fall asleep in her armchair to the standard, plodding daytime television programmes day after day, Diane thought that Margaret needed a change.

With that in mind, she booked two tickets to the local Movie House cinema and when they arrived she saw a change in her mother almost immediately.

Diane says: "She started talking about her memories of going to the pictures when she was a young girl, and when the film started playing, I noticed how interested she was in it. She didn't talk through the film, but I could see her laugh at things."

It was, adds Diane, a classic eureka moment.

In the months that followed, mother and dutiful daughter would attend the newly renovated Strand Cinema in east Belfast, close to their Castlereagh home, once a week at the best of times, once a month after Margaret broke her hip in a fall in February 2016.

Distant and confused at home, Margaret became lucid and mindful in the movie theatre environment and especially when the film started playing. Memories of her childhood days in Belfast - before the Troubles, before 3D, before Imax screens and cheesy nachos - came flooding back through the mists of her dementia. "She loved it," Diane beams, "even though she would have forgotten everything about the film by the time we got home. She used to go to the Strand Cinema as a girl and it brought back so many memories for her, the film itself, as well as the introductory talk that they did at the beginning.

"It gave us a giggle when mum, who was always in flats, slow and steady as anything, remembered how she used to run up to the cinema in her high heels. She loves all types of films, although if it's a sad film and I cry, she can't seem to understand because that emotion has left her.

"She loves old films from her youth but new films, too. I remember people were horrified when she and I went to see Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, but she enjoyed it very much. It's the kind of film that is coming down with bad language, but she didn't seem to mind."

Margaret also recognised many of the matinee idols that cropped up in the Golden Age flicks screened at the Strand, actors she had come to love in her youth, such as David Niven, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and a personal favourite, Dean Martin.

Diane is looking forward to continuing her mother's twilight years exploration of cinema when Queen's Film Theatre begins a new series of screenings curated by Belfast novelist Jan Carson later this month. The first in the Dementia Friendly series, The Quiet Man starring John Wayne, screens on Saturday at 10.30am.

That film is, of course, arguably one of Hollywood's original romantic comedies, and Diane hopes that it will bring back memories of her late father, who Margaret met as a teenager.

"My dad was the van boy at Stewart's," Diane reveals. "And that's where they met, aged 14 or 15. He said that if she let her hair down, he would ask her out, and he always joked that she came back after lunch with her hair down. They got married on October 29, 1946, in Belmont Presbyterian Church, and my dad sadly passed away after a stroke and stomach cancer many years later.

"Mum very seldom talks about dad now. She used to talk about him all the time in her early stages of dementia. She would ask where he was, then how he died and each time it was like the first time she heard the news."

Like all family members of those living with dementia, the burden has been heavy on Diane, particularly being her mother's primary carer.

Diane admits that she has "lost contact with a lot of people" as a result, but that the experience has taught her patience and given her a clearer perspective on life.

"Mum and I have always lived together, but in recent years the roles have changed. She stopped looking after me and I started looking after her," Diane laughs.

"Everything I do, I have to put mum's needs first. It can be tiring as the caring role never stops - you can't take a day off - but most of the time it's great because I love doing things with mum. We are very fortunate that we live with my brother John, so we don't have bills to pay.

"Mum has her family to look out for her and keep her safe, but people on their own are at the mercy of others.

"I don't know what the government can do to improve the lives of individuals, but I think they should certainly be trying to help people with dementia who don't have the support network that my mum has."

Diane is full of praise for the NHS with regards to dementia services, but argues that the arts sector has provided the most tangible expressive outlets for her mother to break free, temporarily at least, from the onslaught of dementia in old age. The two regularly attend tea dances at the Ulster Hall and Singing for the Brain events hosted by the Alzheimer's Society.

Margaret also finds some form of solace and entertainment in books, and is, as it happens, a big fan of Jan Carson's work, particularly her novel Malcolm Orange Disappears.

"She will sit and read it for hours, laughing and giggling, and when Jan is reading at a festival or some sort of literally event, we'll always try to go see her," says Diane.

"The arts are great for people living with these kinds of conditions," she concludes. "We love going to song and dance events, though my mum is now too old to participate herself. She just loves watching it all going on around her.

"I think that artists and those who work in the arts realise how good it can be for people to get involved.

"They understand the benefits of joining in and it's always great to see older people discovering that they are really good at things they have never done before.

"I would encourage anyone living in similar circumstances to get out there and find whatever form of escape appeals to them."


Ahead of Queen's Film Theatre's screening of the first in its dementia friendly film series this Saturday, Lee Henry reports on how a love of movies has helped reinvigorate one Belfast woman with the condition

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