An ‘inspirational’ mother-of-two is on a personal mission to smash fundraising targets and challenge social stereotypes after being diagnosed with dementia at the age of 39.
Sarah Park has vowed to take all the challenges that dementia throws her way and will be uniting with Alzheimer’s Society to take part in their Memory Walk fundraising event in September – with the ultimate goal of raising money to help researchers find a cure for the condition.
Dementia is the UK’s biggest killer – someone develops dementia every three minutes, with 1 million set to develop the condition by 2021.
Every pound raised through Memory Walk will help Alzheimer’s Society provide vital information and support, improve care, fund research and create lasting change for people affected by the condition. Last year over 92,000 walkers joined the dementia movement by taking part in Memory Walk and raised over £7million – this year the charity is urging even more families, friends and colleagues to unite against dementia and take part.
As well as helping to raise these crucial funds, Sarah is determined to do her bit to raise greater awareness and put an end to the agonising uncertainty that faces people like her who are living with young onset dementia.
Sarah describes how her condition was repeatedly mistaken for depression by doctors who struggled to find the right answers as dementia-type symptoms arose. And, in a bid to change social perceptions and support Alzheimer’s Society’s growing dementia movement, Sarah wants to bring attention to the rights of people with dementia and prove it’s possible “to live life to the full” after a dementia diagnosis.
Sarah leads a happy family life in Milnrow, Greater Manchester, with husband Richard and sports-mad children George, 14, and Emily who has just turned 12.
But dementia-related issues first materialised 18 months ago when Sarah started making uncharacteristic mistakes while working as a senior cardiac physiologist for the NHS.
To compensate for this Sara would get up earlier for work – five o’clock in the morning – to jump in her car and head over the Pennines on the M62 to get to her desk with the Calderdale and Huddersfield Health Trust and spend longer analysing scans.
“I thought I could work my way through it by doubling the effort and that worked for 12 months, so I kept plodding on – but then there was another mistake,” Sarah said.
“It was nothing major and it got picked up so no patient was ever at risk but I noticed mistakes and I just could not remember why I had made them. It was horrible and that’s why I said to Richard – I can’t do it anymore.
“It wasn’t worth it. It was just one mistake but it can make all the difference to someone’s health.
It’s sad because I loved my job but the dementia was a bit of a problem – although I didn’t know it was dementia at the time – so I had to call it quits.”
Richard had already started noticing ‘little things’ that gave him cause for concern.
“It’s probably going back further than I realise – repeating stories on social occasions like a family barbeque which I put down to a couple of glasses of Prosecco. But then I noticed things at home a bit more – like putting cups in the wrong cupboard or mixing up the kids’ washing and there was the work situation.”
Richard’s concerns were heightened due to Sarah’s family history – her late dad died of Alzheimer’s at the age of 40 and her grandmother also developed dementia. Initial scans and a normal cognitive test failed to provide definitive answers and then 12 months later a consultant added to the confusion.
“They said I had depression and they focused on the work thing – ‘it’s because of work, it’s because of work’, they kept saying,” Sarah said.
Richard, a structural engineer, said he “knew in my heart of hearts what was going on” and they ended up in January this year at the Cerebral Function Unit in Salford
“We said we wanted a second opinion there in January,” said Richard, “and within three or four weeks, Sarah was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”
“I was gutted; it felt like a kick in the teeth,” said Sarah. “But it was also a relief that we finally knew what was going on.”
Richard describes how the family resolved to be positive: “We’re not the type of people who will sit around feeling sorry for ourselves and we don’t want anyone else to do that.
“We came back in the afternoon so the kids were away at school, sat down on the couch, had a hug, had a cry but dusted ourselves off and by the time the kids came back from school we were fine.
“I took the kids to one side separately and told them about the diagnosis and how they would just have to support Sarah every step of the way.
“And that’s what we’ve been doing – but we’ve still got to crack the whip and ask them to do stuff like tidy their rooms.”
Now the family are adjusting to a new chapter in their lives and Sarah is leading by example.
She keeps fit with spinning classes twice a week and a boot camp while also walking dogs for friends and family and gardening as well as doing the teas at the local cricket club in Milnrow where her son is a first teamer.
“I’m enjoying life on a day-by-day basis and with the summer we’re having it’s been amazing. There’s no point looking too far ahead – you’re planning and suddenly their childhood has gone. It doesn’t take long.
“I miss work because I’m a caring sort of person, and I love a good chat – I’ll be volunteering at the local hospice because I’ve got plenty to give my community.
“I don’t see my dementia diagnosis as the end of the world. I was devastated to start with but I’ve kind of got over that now. There’s plenty more left of me yet. I’m 39 years young.”
Sarah is taking the first step by taking part in Alzheimer’s Society’s Memory Walk in Manchester’s Heaton Park on Saturday, September 29. She has set up a JustGiving account to raise as much money as possible for Alzheimer’s Society and on her page describes her reasons for supporting the charity: “I wish to make the best of my situation and be positive, therefore I want to raise money for research to help find a cure for this horrible disease. Although I will most likely not benefit from any future treatment, I want to contribute to finding a cure for people with dementia in the near future, whilst I still can, which is why I’m supporting Alzheimer’s Society.”
Alzheimer’s Society Chief Executive Officer Jeremy Hughes said:
“While Sarah’s dementia diagnosis at such a young age is devastating, it’s inspiring to see her taking part in Memory Walk and doing her bit to raise awareness of younger onset dementia. Her support is hugely appreciated.
“Dementia is set to affect 1 million people by 2021 – but every pound raised through Memory Walk will help Alzheimer’s Society provide vital information and support, improve care, fund research and create lasting change for people affected by the disease. I would urge people across England, Wales and Northern Ireland to unite with us and join the dementia movement by signing up for a local Memory Walk today.”
Memory Walk is Alzheimer’s Society’s flagship fundraising campaign – there are over 41 walks taking place in September and October in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Alzheimer’s Society is urgently calling on people to unite against dementia and take part in Memory Walk – register now at memorywalk.org.uk. To sponsor Sarah, visit justgiving.com/fundraising/team-sparky