16th May 2022

Claire looks normal, fit and healthy. People don’t know how much she struggles and how much dementia has sapped her independence. It’s massively affected family life and what hurts the most is the relationship with our daughters. Claire used to do everything for Ellie and Megan, it’s hard for them seeing me running around after them and not their mum.

When Claire Hamill was told she had dementia last year at the age of 39, it was a hard diagnosis for the family to hear. Yet it was one that made sense as they had seen her cognitive abilities decline.

She and her husband David, had known each other all their lives. As children, their respective aunts were friends and had even babysat for them together. 

When they married and Claire gave birth to twins at the age of 25, the extreme fatigue she experienced was initially attributed to post-natal depression. However, after experiencing seizures, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Claire then began to experience problems with her memory.

David said: “Claire was making little mistakes at work and couldn’t drive because of the seizures. It was getting too much, so she decided to step down.

“We had no idea about the dementia side of things with MS. When people think of MS they think of mobility issues, Claire’s mobility is fine, but it has affected her cognitive abilities. She’s completely lost her numeracy skills and can’t do basic sums like 17 plus 2. She can no longer cook without supervision. 

“When we got the diagnosis of dementia was horrible to have that confirmed, but it's also easier for me and the girls when we’re out and about or someone knocks on the door and Claire can’t find the words. When we use the word dementia it explains a lot and people get it.

The diagnosis also helped daughters, Ellie and Megan, now 15, to explain what was happening to their friends, who were always supportive, but having a greater understanding helped them broach the issue with their own age group. 

Ellie said: “Our friends know my dad because he’s a teacher and they like him so they’ve been really supportive.

Megan added: “We don’t remember mum not being ill, we’ve grown up with it – it’s all we can remember.”

The diagnosis also led to a referral to Wiltshire charity Alzheimer's Support. 

Finding support for early-onset dementia 

David said: “We met the charity's care coordinator for our area Sarah Tyler and Claire now has visits from two support workers, Alison and Michelle. Obviously, there are professional boundaries, but Claire sees them as friends – they’ve built up such a rapport and put her in a good mood. I can really tell the difference when they’ve been

Claire knitting“Alison and Michelle take Claire out socially and they do a lot of gardening and cooking or they go out to a garden centre, have coffee or go out for walks – all the things Claire enjoys but would struggle to do on her own. It’s given me massive peace of mind.

“I’m really impressed with them – they’re specialists so understand Claire and are patient with her. They’ve got to know her and what she enjoys doing. We’d tried things like jigsaw puzzles as a family, using the largest pieces, but Claire couldn’t do them as she really struggles with problem solving and learning new skills. So when one of the support workers tried knitting with Claire and she could do it, I was blown away.

 “All the Alzheimer’s Support staff have been amazing, we really want them to know that and that our life is so much better now because of them. They go above and beyond, and leave me little notes telling me what they’ve done together and if there’s anything they need for next time.

They’ve allowed me to continue working as a teacher and I know Claire is in safe hands.”

Family life with dementia

“Claire's illness has massively affected family life. The girls see me doing the cooking and shopping – their mum used to do that. I tell them it’s not that she doesn’t want to do it, but she can’t.

"I’ve worked full time as a PE teacher for 16 years, I was head of year for eight years but Claire’s health made that too demanding and I had to concentrate on getting more of a work/life balance. Work has been really supportive and allow me to come in later a couple of days a week."

The family has had to turn down offers of shared holidays and social events, but friends have been incredibly supportive in including Claire in activities said David. "Claire goes to a coffee group, we didn’t know how they would take the news, but we explained it and they are fantastic. They didn’t want her to miss out socially – it’s a huge weight off my shoulders too. They include her in everything.”

More about Alzheimer's Support