Dave Edwards and his wife Fran who is suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer's disease. Picture: Geoff Roberts _180
As ITV screens a documentary charting the effects of Alzheimer’s, Susannah Peters meets a Liverpool family living who have to live with them every day
ROBBING sufferers of their minds, their loves, their independence and their spirit before finally taking their lives, few diseases possess the cruelty of Alzheimer’s.
Tragically, it is the most common form of dementia and as we live longer and longer, more and more people will be affected by it.
People often assume only the elderly get Alzheimer’s but, contrary to popular belief, the disease does not only strike those of pensionable age, a fact Dave and Fran Edwards know only too well.
The couple, from Childwall, had been married 25 years when they were hit with the shattering news that Fran had Alzheimer’s. She was just 53 years old.
Fran had always been highly organised and active. She was a teaching assistant, and had been secretary of daughter Alison’s swimming club. She coached son Philip – who is dyslexic – through his GCSEs. She combined family commitments with a raft of hobbies, including swimming, and going to the gym.
“She always jumped into things with both feet,” says Dave, 56, a docker. “She was never one to stand on the sidelines. If she was involved in something, she’d probably want to run it. And she had a great memory.”
Fran’s sister, Kath Pickavance, adds: “Fran was always one for remembering things like birthdays and appointments. She was the last person you’d expect to get Alzheimer’s.”
But then she started becoming a bit forgetful.
“She’d go to the super market and forget what she’d gone to buy,” he says. Everyday tasks became a struggle.
“I was having to tidy up after her a bit more,” he remembers.
Alison, 24, says: “She started getting anxious about little things. We didn’t have money for a car-park meter one time, and Mum couldn’t deal with it. She started to panic and thought it was a big problem.”
The doctor reassured them it was just the menopause. Then he diagnosed depression. But Fran’s problems didn’t go away and alarm bells started to ring. “Eventually, we couldn’t ignore it any more,” says Dave. “Fran was getting increasingly distressed and frustrated, so we went to the doctor together. There was clearly something more going on, although Alzheimer’s didn’t cross my mind.”
After 12 months of tests and brain scans, Fran was finally diagnosed in 2003. “I felt shock, disbelief, totally numb,” remembers Dave.
Dave and Fran knew better than most what to expect – Dave’s mum died of Alzheimer’s.
“Fran was very distressed,” he says. “And neither of us could believe she had this cruel disease so young.”
Finding the words to tell the children was traumatic. “You try to play it down, rightly or wrongly, tell them new medication is coming through all the time,” Dave says. “But nothing can really soften the blow.”
Philip, 26, is an engineer. He didn’t accept it at first, it was a few months before it sunk in.
“I thought they’d got it wrong,” he says. “You don’t think someone who is 53 could have Alzheimer’s. When I realised she did, I was upset and worried. I’d seen the state Nan was in, and thought, that’s what Mum’s going to end up like.”
Alison, a teaching assistant, says she tried to avoid thinking about the diagnosis. “I hoped things would change, but that hope was stolen away.”
Equally dreadful was breaking the news to Fran’s parents, Frank and Mary Cain, both in their 80s. Kath, 55, a secretary, takes up the story: “We didn’t tell them for a while. Mum kept thinking Fran would get better. It was Fran who told them in the end, she just broke down sobbing. They’re both devastated, it’s heartbreaking for them.”
The disease has developed gradually, there have been no massive changes in Fran’s condition. “When you bring up a child, it eventually learns and remembers,” explains Kath. “Fran has lost that capability now. She can’t learn any more, just can’t.”
FOR a while, she was able to mask her disease from people she met. Dave explains: “If someone asked her a question in the supermarket, I would jump in. Fran would repeat what I said, it made it seem she was involved in the conversation. People would say ‘Fran seems fine’. But she was anything but fine.”
Now a mere 57 years old, Alzheimer’s has slowly robbed Fran of her freedom and independence. She was forced to give up driving three years ago after it became increasingly erratic.