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Living with Alzheimer's: A harmonica for Ronnie

Ronnie Seymour Image copyright Mark Seymour Photography

Ronnie Seymour died earlier this year from Alzheimer's Disease. His son Mark, who documented his father's decline through photographs, describes how playing a harmonica gave a brief reminder of the man they were losing.

Ronnie was the steadiest man you could imagine. He was an engineer and liked to plan everything to the finest detail.

He was always home exactly on time and he used to spend hours in his workshop, which he kept immaculately. He made his own stereo speakers and even designed and built a special door-stop using pneumatics. He had what you might call a practical intelligence.

Ronnie retired on the dot of reaching 65 and he and my mum, Winnie, used to spend all their time together. They loved to go walking.

Image copyright Mark Seymour Photography

Dad, who lived in the same street in Burnham, in Buckinghamshire, throughout his life, kept himself tremendously fit. He did press-ups and sit-ups and manufactured his own weights using water containers. His mind was always active too.

His perfect evening was to sit in his chair and read through the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Ronnie just loved facts and he had a superb memory. His specialist subject was World War Two, Hitler in particular. We used to joke that he should go on Mastermind with Hitler as his specialist subject. He would certainly have been a useful asset to any pub quiz team.

Image copyright Mark Seymour Photography

But three or four years ago Ronnie started to change. He started forgetting little things and began to fall asleep at the table during meals. At first we thought it was just the effects of old age, but we got a diagnosis and it turned out that he had Alzheimer's Disease.

For the first couple of years the decline was quite slow. Ronnie was still able to do things like dressing himself and feeding himself. But by the beginning of last year it was getting too much for mum to cope with. They'd always been a loving couple, but his behaviour, which had always been impeccable, started to become more erratic.

Eventually we decided that the best thing for Ronnie was to go into a home. It wasn't a decision we took lightly and we looked at lots of places, some very good, others not so good.

The home we settled on, Oakwood House, was great. They looked after him beautifully. But it was hard leaving him there for the first time in April last year. My mum told me that Ronnie's first night away was the first night she'd ever spent alone, having shared a room with her sister before she married Ronnie.

Image copyright Mark Seymour Photography

We made Ronnie's room in the home as comfortable as we could. We put a picture of a Vincent Black Shadow, the motorbike he'd ridden in the 1960s, on the wall. Even when dad couldn't remember people's names, he was able to talk about the bike. He pointed out to nurses where the crank shaft was and how different bits worked.

Image copyright Mark Seymour Photography

Another thing we did was take in a harmonica. Dad had a collection of about five or six, including a lovely, top-quality Hohner I'd bought him for his birthday 15 years or so earlier.

Playing a harmonica was something he'd always done. He wasn't professional standard, but he was proficient. After a while in the home, dad had declined to the extent that you had to hand him things like food. Otherwise he didn't know they were there. "I didn't know that was for me," he'd say, as someone passed him a meal that had had been lying on the surface beside him.

It was the same with the harmonica. He wouldn't pick it up on his own. But when someone put it in his hands, he was still able to play a tune. He could do God Save the Queen and a few others.

Image copyright Mark Seymour Photography

Although by this stage he didn't remember even his family's names, there was still a bit of musical skill, just like the memory he showed for motorbike parts when he looked at the Black Shadow picture. When he played the harmonica it was like the old Ronnie was back just for a bit. I think it helped him, in the sense that it stimulated him a bit.

What is Alzheimer's?

  • An umbrella term referring to a collection of symptoms, which may include memory loss and difficulties with problem-solving or language
  • Progressive condition caused by brain disease, currently without cure
  • Alzheimer's disease affects 62% of those living with dementia
  • About 850,000 people have dementia in UK - just over half are diagnosed
  • Approximately one in 20 people over age 65 have it, rising to one in six by the age of 80. One in three in the UK will have it by the time they die

Source: Alzheimer's Society, BBC Science

Mum and dad had always loved music, especially classical, and they used to go to concerts. It was a big part of who Ronnie was and, even when he was fading in other respects, it was a part we could still see glimpses of when he was handed the harmonica.

By the beginning of this year, Ronnie started to go downhill more rapidly. He could no longer use the harmonica. His muscles wasted and he became incontinent. He couldn't do anything for himself. Ronnie developed big bed sores just below his back and, by the time he died, aged 82, in March, his quality of life was poor. In a sense it was a relief to us that he didn't have to go through it all any longer.

Ronnie died holding a nurse's hand. When the funeral directors came to take him away, 15 or so staff lined up to form a sort of guard of honour. Several of them came to his funeral. It was very touching because they obviously liked Ronnie and I think that, despite the effects of the Alzheimer's, they got an inkling of what a nice man he'd been.

Image copyright Mark Seymour
Image copyright Mark Seymour Photography

I've always photographed things, since I was six years old. It became my profession. So it seemed like a natural thing to document Ronnie's decline after the dementia was diagnosed. Because it's what I'm trained to do and what I feel comfortable with, it made my visits to the home easier to deal with. It was easier than having a conversation with Ronnie towards the end.

If I'd been a counsellor, I suppose I could have faced the emotional issues in a different way. But photography was my way of coping. I wanted to show what a kind and wonderful man my father was and what Alzheimer's does to a person.

Mark is hoping to put on an exhibition of his photographs showing Ronnie's life with Alzheimer's. He spoke to Justin Parkinson.

The Alzheimer's Society is running a dementia awareness week from 17 to 23 May.

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