Margaret McKenna, whose partner has Alzheimer’s, is the first carer to graduate from the University of Stirling with an MSc in Dementia Studies.
Margaret, a retired teacher and community development worker from Belfast, graduated in a ceremony on Wednesday 27 June at the Gannochy National Tennis Centre at the University.
Margaret provides 24-hour care for her partner Una, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years ago. Una, a retired psychotherapist, recognised she had memory problems in her early 60s, but tests and brain scans came back clear, leaving her without a diagnosis as her condition slowly deteriorated.
Eager to gain a better understanding of how she could improve life for them both, Margaret began the distance learning MSc in Dementia Studies in 2009. As a result of the course she now feels confident and positive about how she can best support Una.
Margaret said: “Knowledge is power and having more information about the condition gives you that sense of being more on top of the situation. As a result I found the course very fulfilling.
“As someone who supports her, it is important to be flexible and very understanding. There is an on-going sense of grief and loss for both of us as Una gets more and more disabled and it can be very frustrating at times. Her condition is challenging and we deal with it one day at a time.”
Stirling is the first UK University to offer an online MSc in Dementia Studies. The course develops an advanced understanding of multidisciplinary perspectives about dementia and dementia care. The programme has been developed to provide students with an in-depth, research-based knowledge of dementia, including theory, innovative and best practice, policy drivers and initiatives studies and a grounding in academic and research skills.
Margaret said: “My studies really opened my horizons about the lack of support for someone with dementia. There needs to be more training and information for those supporting people with dementia within their community. Most care is given in the home and there needs to be an increase in knowledge and awareness in general for this to be given effectively and in a positive way.
“The course has given me greater compassion and a deeper understanding of Una’s world. It has influenced all of my attitudes and perspectives and has given me the confidence to understand and question health professionals who we deal with.”
She added: “Dementia may take over but there is still a person there with individual tastes and likes - the essence of who Una is is intact. She has huge disabilities around speech, memory, orientation and understanding, but in essence she is the same person. Her transpersonal qualities are intact and she still has a passion for the arts, music, animals and nature. One of the positives of her life is being able to continue to do the kind of activities that she enjoys.
“It is a tough condition to battle and it is continuing to happen no matter what Una does. This course has made a lot of personal difference to both our lives. It has been a tremendous support to me and I would recommend the MSc to anyone who is academically inclined.”
Over 1400 students from the University graduate in four ceremonies taking place on 27 and 28 June, each ceremony being followed by a garden party by the shores of Airthrey loch.
Families and friends unable to attend the ceremonies in person are able to watch the graduations live on the University website.
The University Chancellor, BBC Radio broadcaster Dr James Naughtie, will preside over all four graduation ceremonies, capping every one of the students as they receive their degree certificate.