First Encounters: Helen Rochford Brennan and Aggie Kosikowski

‘We have laughed and cried. There’s nothing I can’t tell her about’

 

Helen Rochford Brennan was given a diagnosis of Younger Onset Alzheimer’s three years ago. She is now a leading spokeswoman on dementia who is also chair of the Irish Alzheimer Society’s National Dementia Working Group and vice-chair of the European Working Group of People with Dementia. She lives in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo with her husband, Seán

Aggie and I were five or six when we met. I think it was in church, or perhaps when we were all going to the bog in Lough Talt. Our families, the Durkins and the Rochfords, were very close. I’m one of nine children, she’s one of eight. Aggie is much quieter than me, we’re opposite personalities. I went to secondary school with Aggie briefly, but I had major problems with the nuns and moved to a VEC, but we stayed friends.

Then she went off to England and later Chicago and for a few years, we lost touch. When I emigrated to Cincinnati, where my sister lived, we became friends again. Aggie hadn’t changed a bit. She was my main friend in America outside my family. I didn’t know anybody my age – so I went to visit her and she came to visit us.

I had met Seán in Tubbercurry in the 1970s, but we didn’t really get together until 1981. We got married in Cincinnati and Aggie was my bridesmaid. Sean – who’d lived in London since he was 17 – came out to the States, but in the end London was calling and we moved there. We moved back to Tubbercurry in 1995 when our son Martin was nine. We owned a B&B, sold it, and I went back to college at 51, in 2001.

I was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2011, when I was 61. I’d been struggling, had known there was something wrong with me, resigned from my job as services co-ordinator with the Irish Wheelchair Association and a lot of my volunteer work because I couldn’t cope.

I couldn’t talk about it and it was more than a year before a doctor suggested I go to the Alzheimer Society and get support. Professor Michelle Kelly got me involved in cognitive rehabilitation and in the Alzheimer Society’s dementia working group. The Society empowers you to live well, it’s something I’d thank them profusely for.

Aggie was nearly the first person I told other than my family. From that day, Aggie has continued to ring me and ring me and ring me, more than she would have before. We have laughed and cried. We are so close, there’s nothing I can’t tell her about: if I’m going through a bad day, I know I can talk to her and when I get off the phone I will be cheered up.

Aggie is one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. She was absolutely the one person, all those years ago, that I could talk to. She was there, always, and now more than ever. The Alzheimer Society of Ireland is inviting people to hold an Alzheimer Tea Day party on Thursday, May 7th, to raise funds for services which support people living with dementia. Call 1800 719 820 for an Alzheimer’s Tea Day pack, or see teaday.ie

Aggie Kosikowski grew up near Aclare, Co Sligo, and emigrated first to Birmingham and then to Chicago. She married in her early 20s, had one daughter and after the death of her first husband, six years later married a widower with three children. She now lives in Chicago with her husband, Tom, and has eight grandchildren

I don’t really remember exactly when I met Helen because we were neighbours, we grew up together. My parents and hers were good friends. We’d go to the bog, sometimes we’d pick blueberries there.

I went to Birmingham when I left school in 1968. Helen stayed at home and worked in the post office in Tubbercurry. After a year and a half, I went to Chicago for my sister’s wedding, liked it there and decided to stay. I married in my early twenties and Helen and I connected again when she came to the States.

I wasn’t really surprised that Helen made a success of a career in the States. She was the type of person who if she wanted something, she’d go after it. She always liked a challenge.

My life took a different turn. I moved to Michigan then back to Chicago. When Helen was in Cincinnati and Kentucky, there were always phone calls – we talked to each other on the phone all the time. When she and Sean got married, they moved to Chicago to stay with my daughter and me until they found an apartment. But I wasn’t surprised when they moved back to England. Helen loved the States but Sean’s heart was in London.

It’s about two years since I found out about Helen’s diagnosis. Helen told my sister Nuala first – my sister in Chicago was very ill at the time and I guess Helen didn’t want to tell me then. Three years ago, when I was home in Ireland, Helen and I went to Donegal for the day – Helen and I always have a day that we’d do something, go out for a nice dinner, go shopping. I didn’t notice anything about Helen – she might forget things but then I forget things too. We had a beautiful day and I had no idea there was anything wrong. It was a complete shock.

We talk at least twice a month for an hour, she tells me stuff, I ask her questions. She and Sean have a great relationship, he’s a really big help to her, as is her son Martin.

I’m not surprised that Helen has become a spokesperson for people in Ireland with Alzheimer’s. That’s Helen: she does this because she really wants to help people and put a face on Alzheimer’s at a young age. I am very proud of her, oh my goodness yes.

Helen is very outgoing, laughs at a lot of things, that’s her coping mechanism. She puts on a very brave face but behind closed doors she has dark moments.

She knows that she can tell me anything and I’m not going to divulge any information.

One day I was telling her something and said, “this is between you and me”. She burst out laughing and said, “Aggie, in the morning, I won’t remember what you told me.” That’s typical Helen, being able to laugh about it.