I was the headteacher of a large primary school when, at the age of 55, my health issues and difficulties were diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease.
I felt if everyone knew the unconfirmed diagnosis I couldn’t see how I could function and lead such a large, complex organisation.
I did tell my two deputies and my secretary, and they agreed to keep it to themselves. I decided to tell more than one person so they could share the responsibility. Holding on to this information can be an onerous, lonely experience for just one person.
Finding ways to cope
My wife used to pick me up from work at lunchtime for a rest break in a quiet spot. My previously open office door now had to be closed to allow me to try and concentrate. Deadlines were missed and staff were becoming concerned about my health. I’m sure there were times when my confidants had to cover for, and protect me. I had a plan they could follow if needed, in case I fell over for example, which I pinned behind other papers on my notice board.
I wanted to leave work on my terms when I felt ready. I told two of the county’s head education officers in confidence, and convinced them that I was monitoring the situation and would do nothing to endanger myself or others.
But my health was declining and I was getting exhausted by any concentrated effort. My doctor signed me off for two months which then became six months.
Knowing when to leave
My absence ended with an open and honest meeting with Occupational Health and I was offered early retirement from teaching. It had been a job I’d done for 32 years and still loved.
I worked extremely hard and was paid very well. My pension has certainly helped me to maintain a reasonable standard of living since retiring. One door does open as one closes and my life, like that of many others, has been filled with different activities, rewards and interests since retiring – in fact life couldn’t be busier and more varied!
Keith’s top tips on work and dementia
- Everyone is different as are their circumstances, do what works best for you and your carer/partner
- Try and talk to someone at work in whom you can confide (ideally two people so they can share the load)
- Check your contract as in some jobs you are obliged to speak to your employer
- Speak to your boss / DVLA if driving is part of your job
- Put in place measures to ensure that you are safe at work as are others you work with
- Seek professional advice – eg human resources, Trade Union / professional body, GP, Memory Clinic
- Look into your pension situation at work and any benefits which might be available – contact your pension dept, Citizens Advice, Alzheimer’s Society, Age UK
- Ensure that you complete Lasting Power of Attorney and your Will
- Try and make financial plans to allow you when the time is right to retire or reduce your working commitment to allow you to benefit from as positive a post-diagnosis life as possible.
- Keith Oliver now volunteers as a dementia envoy for Kent & Medway NHS & Social Care Partnership Trust. He works to promote awareness of young onset dementia and to offer support to those who share a similar diagnosis. Keith told his story in a film, you can watch it below.