Wendy Mitchell, campaigner for dementia awareness who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s aged 58 – obituary

Wendy Mitchell in January 2023
Wendy Mitchell in January 2023 - Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

Wendy Mitchell, who has died aged 68, spent a decade campaigning for dementia awareness; she was the author of three bestselling books, appeared on television, took part in clinical trials and research, wrote a popular online blog and became an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society.

Wendy Mitchell was 58 when her once-brilliant memory started to let her down at work. “I’d recognise the faces of colleagues but could not remember their names, even though these were people I’d worked closely with for years. Embarrassingly, I’d forget the simplest of words in meetings,” she said.

In July 2014 she received a diagnosis of young-onset vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Like many people, she knew little about the condition. “I was frightened, terrified of this progressive illness and its planned trajectory that would slowly and surely be revealed to me,” she told The Daily Telegraph last year. All she knew were snippets picked up through media and second-hand tales from friends. None of it was encouraging, a perception she was determined to change.

Wendy Mitchell's guide to living with dementia
Wendy Mitchell's guide to living with dementia

In her memoir Somebody I Used to Know (with Anna Wharton, 2018), which was featured by the Richard and Judy Book Club, Wendy Mitchell described her busy job with the NHS and how she brought up two daughters as a single parent while spending weekends running by the River Ouse in York or climbing mountains. She was organised, energetic and good at painting and decorating. Then, slowly, a mist settled deep inside the mind she once knew so well, blurring the world around her.

Insisting on living independently, she used Post-it notes, technology and colours to outsmart her dementia, including painting a blue border around her light switches so they did not disappear into the wall. She also created a “memory room”, a display of labelled photos of her daughters, friends and special places, describing it as a place where she felt calm and happy.

Her other two books were What I Wish People Knew About Dementia (2022), a guide to living with the disease, and One Last Thing: How to Live With the End in Mind (2023), which discusses assisted dying and will be published in paperback next week.

“If assisted dying was available in this country, I would have chosen it in a heartbeat, but it isn’t,” she wrote in her final blog post, suggesting that she had starved herself to death. “I didn’t want dementia to take me into the later stages; that stage where I’m reliant on others for my daily needs; others deciding for me when I shower or maybe insisting I had a bath, which I hate; or when and what I eat and drink.”

Wendy Patricia Draper was born in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, on January 31 1956. Her parents ran a public house and her earliest memory was of being a toddler in a cot by the fire. “I can see myself trying to pull myself up, my chubby hands wrapped around the wooden rails. No detail, just a wonderful memory flash,” she told The New Statesman last year.

She was educated locally and while her daughters were small took on as many cleaning jobs as she could manage. When they were older she worked in non-clinical roles for the NHS, starting as a part-time receptionist in a physiotherapist department in Milton Keynes. Later she returned to her native Yorkshire, managing the rosters for hundreds of nurses at St James’s Hospital, Leeds.

Somebody I Used to Know (with Anna Wharton, 2018), was featured by the Richard and Judy Book Club
Somebody I Used to Know (with Anna Wharton, 2018), was featured by the Richard and Judy Book Club

In March 2015 Wendy Mitchell took early retirement and immediately threw herself into the unfamiliar world of social media, including her blog Which Me Am I Today “to write all my thoughts before they are lost”.

She became a public speaker and campaigner, went skydiving to raise funds for dementia research, and appeared on Sky News, the Victoria Derbyshire programme and BBC Breakfast. During the first Covid-19 lockdown she discovered a passion for photography.

As a child Wendy Mitchell had never been given books, but came to them after her diagnosis. “By that time it was too late to read fiction as I could no longer remember the storyline. But one of my favourites is Fox 8,” she said of enjoying George Saunders’s short story.

Her marriage was dissolved in 1988, and she is survived by her two daughters.

Wendy Mitchell, born January 31 1956, died February 22 2024