Health and wellness

Ex-model Cathy Lee on her journey to understanding grandmother’s dementia: ‘I felt bad that we ignored the signs’

  • Former actress and her husband donate US$3.85 million for research at British university into disease after family grow to appreciate the suffering her grandmother endured
PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2018, 7:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2018, 11:00am

Cathy Lee Chui Chi-kay’s grandmother became forgetful in the final years of her life, but it never occurred to her family that the elderly woman was suffering from dementia.

“We would just laugh about her getting old ... I felt bad that we ignored the signs,” Lee said.

Her grandmother died about three or four years ago, at the age of 85, by which time she could not identify those closest to her.

“In the last seven or eight years of her life, she started calling me Fong Fong,” Lee said. “Fong Fong is my auntie’s name ... She thought I was her daughter.”

Lee, a former model and actress as well as wife of Henderson Land vice-chairman Martin Lee Ka-shing and daughter-in-law of property tycoon Lee Shau-kee, said it was not until she watched the 2014 American film Still Alice that she began to understand more.

The film follows the struggle of a linguistics professor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia among older adults.

“I learned how dementia had really been wearing down my grandmother mentally. It’s a different sort of suffering,” she said.

The elderly woman lost interest in activities she used to enjoy, such as tai chi and eating dim sum with friends. But the family were more concerned with her physical illnesses than her mental state.

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The experience has prompted Lee to throw her support behind research into the disease at her alma mater in Britain, University College London, to which she and her husband recently donated £3 million (US$3.85 million).

About two years ago the institution launched a campaign to raise funds for work on dementia. The Lees’ donation is among the largest the university has received from Asia. A short ceremony will be held in Hong Kong on Monday to highlight the couple’s investment.

Dementia, a degenerative brain disease, affects people around the world. With an ageing population, Hong Kong is expected to see more cases in the coming decades. According to a study published in 2012, the number of city residents aged 60 or older with dementia will reach 332,000 by 2039, an increase of 222 per cent on 2009.

Lee, who in 2004 obtained a UCL degree in economics and business with East European studies, said supporting research meant bringing greater hope to those living with the disease.

“Because of previous research and funding, many illnesses are now treatable and manageable, for example Aids, cancer and diabetes,” she said.

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She hopes for better awareness of dementia across society, which she said was lacking compared with other ailments.

“The sort of funding and attention it gets, it’s almost like this disease is invisible,” she said. “It’s not something you really hear about on the news because it is not shocking enough.”

The donation will help create a centre for translational neuroscience research, with particular focus on dementia, its diagnosis and treatment.

UCL already has dementia research projects ongoing in collaboration with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the University of Hong Kong.

UCL president and provost Professor Michael Arthur described the donation as an “incredibly generous and farsighted investment”.

“It will make a tangible contribution to creating a future free from dementia,” he said.