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18 June 2023

Wendy Mitchell’s Q&A: “It wasn’t until I had dementia that books became a joy”

The campaigner on living with her diagnosis, Barack Obama and her love of Gogglebox.

By New Statesman

Wendy Mitchell was born in Wakefield in 1956. She worked in a non-clinical role in the NHS before she was diagnosed with young-onset dementia aged 58. She now writes a blog about living with dementia and is a best-selling author.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being a toddler in a cot by the fire. I can see myself trying to pull myself up, my chubby hands wrapped around the wooden rails. No detail, just a wonderful memory flash.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was my PE teacher, Margaret Wilkes. I aspired to be like her. She was always smiling and always found time to chat. I’ve never had an adult hero as such, but when diagnosed, I met Agnes Houston MBE. She showed me that there is life after a diagnosis and changed my thinking about having dementia.

What book last changed your thinking?

I was never bought books as a child, so didn’t get into reading as avidly as my daughters did. I remember as an adult reading practical books to help me with DIY, my garden, my sporting hobbies.

It wasn’t until I had dementia that books became a joy and by that time it was too late to read fiction as I could no longer remember the storyline. But one of my favourites is Fox 8 by George Saunders. This deceptively childlike story offers a glance into environmental disaster through the eyes of nature. I can read books again and again and still have the joy of it being like the first time.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Barack Obama. His charismatic personality and ability to hold a crowd’s attention is awe-inspiring.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Crikey, I could never cope with the pressure!

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I wouldn’t. I’ve never been happier than where I am now, despite dementia. I grew up long before technology ruled our lives, and had a childhood free of social media pressure. The Fifties, Sixties and Seventies were the best for music ever. So, I’ve had the best of both worlds – then and now.

What TV show could you not live without?

Gogglebox. I watch repeats every evening to go to bed with a smile.

Who would paint your portrait?

Someone with a sense of humour.

What’s your theme tune?

Morecambe and Wise, “Bring Me Sunshine”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

That there is a life after a diagnosis of dementia. I’ve tried my best to instil this in others.

What’s currently bugging you?

That assisted dying isn’t law in this country, denying us a choice for when and how we die.

What single thing would make your life better?

I’d be greedy if I asked for anything else.

When were you happiest?

Now, bizarrely.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I’d work on a nature reserve protecting wildlife.

Are we all doomed?

We’re only doomed if we concentrate on the negatives. At various points in history, something catastrophic has happened, but the world still continues to exist. We just have to learn and act on the mistakes from the past.

“One Last Thing: How to Live with the End in Mind” by Wendy Mitchell is published by Bloomsbury

[See also: Changing how we treat dementia]

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars