The other day I read a news story that troubled me, and still has me thinking. It was in the online Sydney Morning Herald, and was written about comedian Billy Connolly, and quoted longtime TV chat host Michael Parkinson. The heading kicked off the disturbing element, by saying “Billy Connolly’s brain has been ‘dulled’ by Parkinson’s, says TV legend.”

The article went on to describe how Connolly’s mental capacities were now being diminished as a result of having Parkinson’s disease, with which he’d been first diagnosed in 2013. And his friend Parkinson didn’t hold back on the details, with comments such as:

  • “The sadness of Billy now is that wonderful brain is dulled.
  • “I saw him recently… and it was very sad because I was presenting him with a prize at an award ceremony.
  • “We had an awkward dinner together because I wasn’t quite sure if he knew who I was or not….He said to me, ‘How long have we known each other?’
  • “To know someone as long as I knew and loved Billy, it was an awful thing to contemplate that that had been taken away from him.”

What I was left with after reading that article was a feeling of sadness that Parkinson could so casually skewer the Connolly of now, in the light of the Connolly of before, by dragging out all the disparagingly pitying comparisons between the two that we typically hear about anyone with dementia.

A person with the capacities of Parkinson could, instead, have had the wit to look at some of the recent views on how best not to simply stigmatise someone whose intellectual functioning has changed. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2013, for example, senior dementia design consultant Meredith Gresham asked “How much are we reinforcing only looking at dementia through the lens of loss for people with dementia, family and professional carers? Turning to one of the books on my bookshelf, Tessa Perrin’s Wellbeing in Dementia, I did find practical hopefulness that so many are looking for:

“‘The more people see that people with dementia, when given the correct support and care, can live rewarding and happy lives, the less cause there will be for fear of the condition.’”

And earlier, in 2008 in a Weekend Australian Inquirer, writing about Hazel Hawke, then living with Alzheimer’s, her daughter Sue Pieters-Hawke was very prepared to face the realities of her mother’s condition, saying that “I would never stray into the hippie-dippy territory that romanticises dementia; to do so is to ignore the awful losses that accompany the process.” At the same time, she passed on some very sage advice:

“Learn the art of fragmented, irrational conversation, and follow the person’s lead instead of trying to control the dialogue. It’s a different way of relating, in which one starts to hear the threads of meaning and purpose buried in the cheerful meandering conversations we now have. It demands a kind of surrender to a sort of shuffling dance that has no agenda, no need to arrive at any particular destination.”

How much more pleasant a conversation could Parkinson have reported on if he had followed this advice, and his friend Connolly’s lead? Billy Connolly gave much to the world with his wonderful comedic talent. And now it’s time for his friends such as Parkinson to give back to him by accepting who he is and contributing to his quality of life in the present, rather than diminishing him as a person because of his condition.

More broadly, it is time not only for Parkinson, but also for the rest of us who are describing dementia from the outside, to think about how we can best enjoy the moment that we’re in with those of our old friends and family who have joined the one quarter of our ageing population who have been diagnosed with a form of dementia. And, most importantly, we should go on spending satisfying times with them on their evolving terms, rather than leaving them isolated in their new world.

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