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Wendy Mitchell: Living and dying with dementia

Wendy Mitchell has died, aged 68 after ten years or more of living with dementia: Wendy Mitchell obituary | Dementia | The Guardian

She has been a great spokesperson and inspiration to people with dementia and their families, emphasising and demonstrating that the presence of Alzheimer’s disease or other pathologies which sum to produce a progressive dementia syndrome does not end the individual as a spiritual and cognitive being – nor does it stop people from doing practical things, learning new tricks, and helping others. A powerful and important message. We are in awe and grateful.

She has preached against the use of the word ‘sufferers’ – and this is so important. Yet in her final blog she refers to dementia as ’cruel’ – giving it the status of another being: it is not a being but a disorder which occurs for a range of reasons – it does not have a will or moral code – it is a phenomenon not a being. It is to be understood, accepted and lived with – That is essentially what Wendy Mitchell has done.

I am not comfortable with the thinking, long-rehearsed, which led her to bring forward her death, even at this stage, when she clearly still had a great deal to offer. My worry is that it will encourage others to feel that they should do the same – perhaps to avoid the additional challenges of late stage dementia for themselves – but also for their family and wider society.

This thinking says to me that the lives of people with advanced dementia are seen to be of no value, and their continuation simply a burden. I read similar views in Ronald Blyth’s ‘The View in Winter’ last evening – and wrote beside this section: ‘This is horrid: ageist, classist and more’.

We respect and praise the life and work which Wendy Mitchell has lived and the means of dying which she has chosen – which in itself demonstrates that there is no need for a change of law: ‘Turning your face to the wall’ is a long-accepted and legal choice.

The debate and discussion of assisted dying has not been primarily about death with dementia, but by other conditions, such as cancer, where pain is more often part of the process. Most in the hospice movement, which knows most about this, will say there is no need for a change of law. Most pain and discomfort can be ameliorated.

The threat to people living with dementia, or fearing that they are developing dementia, is that they come to feel that altruism demands that they rid the world of an unwanted, misunderstood, unvalued presence.

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