Ahmed Pochee, in Nottingham, is making the most of every day.
Actor Vicky McClure, from TV’s Line of Duty, has a particularly enthusiastic participant in her Our Dementia Choir project.
According to Ahmed Pochee, who turned 80 at the end of last year, ‘The choir’s uplifting – and it’s interesting because it’s full of different people with all different outlooks to life. Also, I love hugging all the ladies!’
Does he enjoy the singing as well?
‘Yes and no,’ he laughs, ‘That’s secondary!’
The choir’s brought Ahmed all sorts of new experiences. He’s followed in the footsteps of The Beatles and recorded at Abbey Road. He’s performed at music festivals, appeared on ITV’s Loose Women and has a potential upcoming date on BBC Breakfast.
The choir has sung for many organisations, including for a conference audience of more than 2,000.
It’s also a research project showing the profound effect that music has on the brain. The organisers believe anyone newly diagnosed with dementia should be offered music therapy as part of their ‘social prescribing’.
‘I knew I would still do things,’ he says. ‘I would never sink down and mope. I’ve got an allotment and I help at a charity shop once a week.’
And when the mood takes him, he makes a mean onion bhaji for his vegetarian wife, Jenny.
‘My attitude is that I wake up in the morning and I’m alive and that’s a bonus. A lightning bolt could strike at any time. That’s why I make the most of every day.’
None of this is surprising when you consider Ahmed’s level of achievement throughout his life.
Take languages – he’s gained proficiency in Gujarati, Urdu, Afrikaans, Zulu and written Arabic (he’s apologetic for not having mastered spoken Arabic) as well as English.
On top of that, Ahmed has faced harsh circumstances in his life, finding effective and creative ways to deal with these. Born in South Africa in 1942, he made the decision to leave its apartheid system behind in his 20s.
Ahmed was the second of eight children.
‘The theory was that, because there were no pensions for people of colour, the larger the family you had, the more chance you would be looked after in your old age,’ he explains.
Ahmed’s great-grandfather had left India for South Africa and joined Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign for the rights of Indians there.
The family settled in South Africa, and Ahmed’s first home was a spacious house in a pleasant area of Standerton, about 150km from Johannesburg.
Their house was requisitioned without warning by the government and the family forced to move into an old prefab house in a less desirable part of town, without compensation or right to appeal. They were told, ‘Fend for yourselves.’
This was the result of the racial segregation that decided where people in South Africa could and couldn’t live, along with controls on many other areas of life, from 1948 until the 1990s.
Ahmed’s father and uncle ran a shop selling everything from sugar and building materials to live chickens.
‘I remember very vividly my dad had a shop in the middle of the commercial area,’ says Ahmed. ‘Poorer white people used to come and if we didn’t give way to them on the pavement, they would just kick us.’
When he was old enough, Ahmed travelled around India and Pakistan to rediscover his roots. When he returned to South Africa, he found he was unable to follow his dream to study food technology. He left for England and was shocked on his arrival.
‘I had to get to grips with living in a country where there was freedom. For six months after I arrived here, I didn’t speak to white people unless I was spoken to,’ he remembers.
‘I would spend ages looking for non-white entrances to underground stations, banks and post offices – and I once waited for two hours for a non-white bus, not realising I could get onto any bus.
‘It took me about six months to change my perspective. After that, nothing could stop me.’
Ahmed took A levels at Isleworth Polytechnic, happily meeting Jenny in a pub through friends. He then went on to study for his food technology degree at the University of Reading.
The couple moved up to Barnsley, where Ahmed had a job as lab technician and then technical manager at Lyons Bakery. He travelled around the UK and Ireland, vetting fruit suppliers for Lyons food products. He and Jenny have three sons – Hareth, 45, Adam, 42, and Danyal, 29.
In his spare time, Ahmed ran a project that ended up in the Guinness Book of Records – creating what was then the world’s biggest meat and potato pie.
‘It had 50,000 portions and took three years out of my life,’ he says.
Ahmed’s final job was with Northern Foods in Nottingham. When he was made redundant in his 60s, he set up shop just like his father had done before him, this one a traditional hardware store.
Over time, he noticed the paperwork gradually feeling harder to deal with. Customers loved Ahmed and his shop, but started questioning whether he had selective hearing – some of their questions didn’t seem to register with him.
Then, during a trip to Australia with Jenny in 2015, they both noticed changes in Ahmed’s behaviour.
‘We were in Port Douglas and we had a little plan of the town,’ says Jenny. ‘We were trying to find our way back to our apartment and had been wandering around for 20 minutes, and we couldn’t figure out where we were going.
‘We suddenly realised Ahmed had the map upside down. This was so unlike him. Then he kept forgetting things and asking me the same question over and again.’
They discussed this with their GP and the following year Ahmed was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
Ahmed’s main response was relief.
‘The diagnosis explained why these things were happening, why I keep on asking for something and repeating things.’
None of this gets in the way of how positive he is as a person.
‘Whatever life throws at me, I find ways to work round it.’
Ahmed is delighted with the support he’s received from Alzheimer’s Society, Age UK and others. This includes educational seminars at Nottinghamshire cricket ground when he was first diagnosed, and research groups at the University of Nottingham.
He likes being part of a group of people with different types of dementia. He often takes a lead because he is eloquent and knowledgeable or, as he puts it, ‘I can talk for England!’
Ahmed enjoys sporting activities, café sessions and quizzes organised by the Forget Me Notts, a project run by the cricket club’s charitable arm. They also have some separate events for carers that Jenny finds incredibly valuable.
Jenny says her advice to anyone affected by dementia is to accept all support that’s offered to you.
‘I get as much out of the dementia-friendly groups as Ahmed does.’
Living with it
Ahmed says his attitude to life is accept what’s happening, live with it and make the best of it. If he worries about the future, it’s for his family in South Africa – sometimes affected by violence there – and not about his life over here.
‘I’ve got a very supportive wife,’ he smiles. ‘Sometimes I give her a hard time, but the truth is I love her to bits.
‘She keeps me on my toes and keeps me active, even when I want to stay in and watch cricket or football on TV, and our sons are all supportive.
‘There are so many things that are going well for me in my life. I’m alive. I’m alive and kicking.’
How can you help?
£30 can provide two hours of a dementia adviser’s time, supporting people affected by dementia.