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Helen Rochford Brennan, EWGPWD Vice-Chair says “Terrorism failed to prevent the EWGPWD from completing its work”

Monday 21 March 2016

I had been looking forward to attending the EWGPWD meeting and catching up with some new and old friends from across Europe for many months; not just from a work perspective but also as an enjoyable social engagement. I looked forward to exchanging updates on our families - including Hilary’s dog Tilly - and enjoying some laughter and fun.

On Monday morning, I met Agnes and Donna for breakfast after which Agnes and I went out for a walk to visit to one of Brussels’ many beautiful churches; this was our quiet time, a time out to remember our friends who could no longer be with us.

The meeting on Monday was very productive. It was chaired by Helga and facilitated by the excellent Dianna Gove and Ana Diaz. We updated the group on what we had been doing in our own countries on behalf of Alzheimer Europe (AE). I am lucky because The Alzheimer Society of Ireland (ASI) has such a great advocacy and policy team who always ensure people with dementia are at the forefront of their work, and as AE are included in our work, needless to say I had lots to report on.

We then discussed the recent Board meeting, ethics and our future work.  Vanessa Challinor also gave a wonderful presentation on current developments on the UN Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Now it was time for a break, dinner at Hotel Thon and an early night after all I was still on Irish time, so it was a bit early for me!!!

We all met for breakfast on Tuesday morning and realised with a growing horror that something was very wrong. Just after 8am I got a text from my son Martin in London enquiring if I was ok, the frantic texts began to stream in from family and friends in Ireland. The hotel staff and Sky News filled us in on what had happened. It took a moment to sink in; the absolute horror and the proximity of it. It was a shock for all of us.

Our meeting was on the 29th floor and all we could hear were sirens. It brought me right back to working in London across the road from the Hyde Park bombings in the 1980s. I must admit I shed a tear now thinking of the pain for the people involved in Brussels and the fear for all of us.

I spoke to Dianne and Ana suggesting we stay calm and I asked our Chair Helga to have a moment’s silence to remember everyone caught up in this awful tragedy. We carried on with our meeting, business as usual because we must never give in to terrorists.

Dianne and Ana facilitated with their very best leadership skills. They were truly amazing, trying to keep us all focused on research especially when the Metro was attacked nearby. For me, like others, questions flooded my mind; how many more bombs would there be? How and when will I be able to get home? We succeeded in getting our work done and decided to go out for dinner, personally I thought this was a very good idea as we did not allow fear to influence our actions, which is exactly what the terrorists are hoping to achieve. Terrorism wins if fear rules.

In the quietness of my own room, I had mixed emotions; anger, some fear but most of all grief for all the people who lost their lives and the many lying injured, lives shattered. I was delighted we had such productive couple of days and were able to continue our work to help make the world better for people with dementia.

Wednesday morning was a challenge for all. We were well aware that the airport would not be opening for a week, as is to be expected with the enormity of what had happened. Ana worked so hard liaising with Gwladys at AE to try and reschedule our flights etc., whilst Dianne kept the meeting going. I was lucky to receive a message from Ryanair telling me my flight was moved to Charleroi. I heard from the hotel staff the queue at the bus stop was huge, not to mention the airport. I travel alone, which is my right but the thought of all the people was daunting. Ana travelled by taxi with me to Charleroi, which was terrific.

A few things from this whole experience stood out for me:

Travel alone whilst I can, it’s a rewarding challenge.

We can fight to protect and preserve our way of life, or we can give in to fear and panic. 

My emotions are still there, despite my illness.

The Airport Assistance was amazing and Ryanair reminded me in advance of the time I needed to get to the airport, it’s very useful for our airlines to keep us informed.

Social media played an important part in me getting home easily by linking up with a friend on Facebook, who messaged to say she was at Charleroi airport and would look out for me. She gave me a lift home from Dublin to Sligo .By using Facebook and Twitter I received lots of messages from family and friends, so they all knew I was safe. I also received a social media message telling me I was in a Terror Zone and to answer yes or no, whether I was safe, information which is then fed back to our countries.

The hotel staff were courteous and helpful as were the taxi drivers.

Finally, I think we were a brave group being led with great empathy by the AE team.

As Lyndon B. Johnson once said “Yesterday is not ours to recover but tomorrow is ours to win or lose”.

The EWGPWD will continue to win.

I would like to say thanks to all the staff at AE and ASI for their professionalism and support, which was outstanding.

Helen Rochford Brennan

Vice-Chair of EWGPWD (pictured above, front row in the purple dress and black blazer)