Living with Alzheimer’s

Dr Diarmuid O’Shea and organiser Sinead Grennan.

Dr Diarmuid O’Shea and organiser Sinead Grennan.

Certain maladies carry with them certain social stigmas. In the old days, when people spoke of cancer, they would often talk about it in euphemistic terms, such as referring to it as The Big C, in order to avoid an awkward conversation.

In Ireland, the modern day equivalent could certainly be said to be Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. However, there are now social support groups in place attempting to buck that particular trend.

The Alzheimer Café Donnybrook is one such group. Based in the Avila Centre on Bloomfield Avenue off Morehampton Road, the café is a unique support group set up for people with dementia and their families. The café will be celebrating its third birthday later this year, and runs on the second Thursday of every month in the same location from 7pm to 9pm. It was the first of its kind in Ireland, and provided the catalyst for numerous other Alzheimer cafés being founded around the country.

The founder and coordinator of Alzheimer Café Donnybrook is Sinead Grennan, who was inspired to start the initiative after a conversation with a woman with dementia who lamented the fact that there were no clubs for people with her condition. In light of the absence of such support units, Sinead and several others set up a working group, raised some money, and founded the Alzheimer Café, structured after the established model of Alzheimer cafés already set up in the Netherlands.

Sinead spoke to NewsFour about the social component and emotional support the café provides to people with dementia and their families, as many of them are often left feeling very isolated in their own communities and struggling to cope. The café is a safe, relaxed place where families and healthcare professionals can come together and share different experiences.

“People with dementia and their families, they’re really quite isolated,” Sinead told NewsFour. “There are so many challenges, and it’s really special that they have a support group. It’s a place to talk about things that you wouldn’t really get the opportunity to talk about anywhere else. Regulars make new people feel welcome, so they sort of play their own role.”

Volunteers, from left to right, Owen Gallagher, Carol Ann Duggan, Joan Russell, Patrick McCarthy and Seamus Cunningham.

Volunteers, from left to right, Owen Gallagher, Carol Ann Duggan, Joan Russell, Patrick McCarthy and Seamus Cunningham.

At each Alzheimer Café meeting there is a special guest speaker who addresses the audience with his or her own story about their experiences with Alzheimer’s and dementia. The purpose of this, as Sinead puts it, is “to meet other people on the same journey.”

NewsFour was present at the August 14th meeting, surrounded by fine china, tea and cake. The guest speaker on this particular evening was Seamus Cunningham, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2012.

Seamus spoke of his experiences since his diagnosis and the help that he has received along the way. Seamus is involved with the Rose Cottage Dementia Resource Centre in Tymon North, Tallaght. He has become something of a minor celebrity in recent times, having been a guest on the Pat Kenny Show twice, among other media outlets. Seamus spoke at length about how he refuses to view his condition as a ball and chain, but rather as a challenge and as just another journey. He also spoke of his proactive stance in terms of struggling for the rights of people stricken with Alzheimer’s and dementia, notably his stance on providing Alzheimer’s sufferers with free bus passes.

Fielding questions from the audience, Seamus spoke of Ireland’s lack of Alzheimer’s awareness and his praise for the staff at the Rose Cottage.

“Alzheimer’s back in the day was ‘just getting older’,” he told the crowd. “The staff in the Rose Cottage are unbelievable. It gives me a reason to get up in the morning and we get a great kick out of it.”

NewsFour had a chat with Sinead Grennan after the café event to discuss the implications of Alzheimer’s and why the subject is still considered to be somewhat taboo, even in 21st Century Ireland.

“I think there’s a lot of ignorance about Alzheimer’s and a lot of fear about it, kind of fear of the unknown. When they think about Alzheimer’s they think about being in a home, being in a room,” Sinead told us. “People don’t see that it’s a journey and that people can still do well day to day. The café is not only about information, but about emotion. At the moment in Ireland we have 40,000 people with dementia. It could be 140,000 within 30 years.”

The Alzheimer Café is run by a voluntary steering committee and voluntary panel. On average, between 35 and 50 people attend each café, more than half of them regulars. Mount Anville Secondary School was recently responsible for conducting a fundraiser for Alzheimer Café Donnybrook, which went towards the creation of a national network of other such cafés, notably Alzheimer Café Glasnevin and Alzheimer Café South County Dublin.

Information on the Donnybrook support group can be found online at

By Craig Kinsella