Dementia sufferer aims to prove diagnosis 'isn't the end' by starting Edinburgh University PhD

Dementia sufferer Michael, 74, is proof that diagnosis 'isn't end'

Wednesday, 6th November 2019, 11:45 am
Michael McLenaghan said he has seen 'huge improvement' in his abilities since starting his studies.
Michael McLenaghan said he has seen 'huge improvement' in his abilities since starting his studies.

A retired chimney sweep who left school at 14 without any qualifications and was diagnosed with early-onset dementia at just 47 is set to start his PhD at Edinburgh University in the spring.

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Michael McLenaghan, 74, grew up in Fountainbridge and started working age eight as a milk boy on the same milk cart as actor Sean Connery at St Cuthbert’s Co-Operative Society.

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Undiagnosed with dyslexia until the age of 70 the Edinburgh native was “chucked out of school” after being told he “couldn’t learn” so he joined his dad on the roofs of Edinburgh and worked as a chimney sweep until he was medically retired aged 42, due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

He then suffered a series of strokes and, at only 47, was diagnosed with early-onset dementia which he believes was caused through recurring exposure to carbon monoxide.

Mr McLenaghan said that he “thought his life was over” when he received his diagnosis.

He said: “Dementia is a terrifying diagnosis to receive, it made me retreat into myself.”

'You can carry on living and learning'

But through meeting other people with the condition Mr McLenaghan realised that he could “keep living, and live well”.

He said: “I thought I was a goner but through meeting other people suffering from dementia and seeing them getting on with life I got my fight back.

“I realised that although you have dementia your mind still works, just a bit differently, and you can carry on living and learning.”

Now 74, having lived with dementia for 30 years he is “raring to go” and is heading back to Edinburgh University to start a PhD in Anthropology.

He said that university is something he has always been interested in but had always felt “out of reach” since he first struggled to learn to read at primary school.

While having no academic background he is currently completing an evening class in anthropology and is learning to use a computer.

He said that he has seen “huge improvement” in his abilities since getting stuck into his studies and wants to see more people with dementia doing the same.

Determined to show that “receiving a dementia diagnosis isn’t the end of life”, Mr McLeanaghan will focus his studies on breaking the stigma around the condition.

He said there is a tendency after one receives a dementia diagnosis to “turn away from life” and “I want to encourage people suffering to stay engaged in the community”.

There are an estimated 90,000 people with dementia in Scotland. Jim Pearson, Director of Policy and Research from Alzheimer Scotland, said: “We are thrilled to hear about Mike and of his plans to attend University to start a PhD and wish him every success.

“Staying active and maintaining social connections should be part of a healthy routine for people living with dementia. With the right care, information and support, many people diagnosed with early onset dementia and other dementias can continue to live an active part in the communities where they live.”