A couple of years before his mother, Dr Christine Shaw, died after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, Paul Shaw started sending her weekly letters.
He told small tales from the family’s shared history: picnics at the beach; mulberry-picking with his sister and three brothers; Christine’s careful ministrations to scraped knees. His father, Dr Brian Shaw, would read them aloud to her at their family home.
As Paul delved into the past in his letters, Christine’s own memories were leaking away. She had been in her early 60s when she started experiencing the tremors of Parkinson’s. Dementia came later – as it often does in the advanced stages of the disease.
“It was horrifying,” says Paul. “This constant, slippery slide of losing that beautiful brain she had.”
Christine died in 2014, at the age of 72. This year, Paul turns 50. Rather than celebrate, he has decided to raise $50,000 through crowdfunding to support the Brain and Mind Centre’s Forefront Healthy Brain Ageing Research Group, which aims to prevent or slow down the rate of cognitive decline in those at risk of developing dementia. The group’s focus is on whether changes to sleep, diet, cognitive activity and other risk factors can reduce the underlying brain changes associated with dementia.
As the population ages, dementia in Australia is on the rise. By 2050, more than a million people are expected to be living with the condition.
In her life – and in her work as a doctor – Christine cared for other people. She graduated in medicine from the University of Sydney in 1964 and went on to become a GP. Later, she worked as an assistant surgeon.
Paul remembers visiting her at work as a child during school holidays and hearing patients gush about his mother’s kindness. “She was this wonderfully intelligent, gentle person,” he says.
In her final years, Christine’s husband Brian – a palliative care specialist – became her carer. “It was really hard for dad, but he was amazing,” says Paul. “As a husband but also as a medical practitioner. She died at home. She never had to go into an institution, because dad sacrificed everything so she felt loved and at home until her final breath.”
For the funeral, the family chose a hymn they felt matched Christine’s character: Hail Mary, Gentle Woman.
Paul sees his gift to the University not just as a contribution to research, but as a means of raising awareness about dementia in Australia. “It’s an excuse to talk to as many people as possible about protecting and preserving the brain,” he says. “I wanted to do something mum would have been proud of.”