My granny, Audrey Norris, worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, she used her creative streak to make and sell stuffed toys, and she typed up PhD theses at Cranfield University, using a double-carriage technical typewriter. I have vivid memories of running around her back garden and of watching her and her daughter, my mum, sharing a passion for knitting, sewing, making, doing. My granny passed away when I was 11, but 18 years later, I still think of her every time I go to the haberdashery floor of a department store, when I see my mum turning a metre of fabric into a handbag and, especially, when my mum taught me how to crochet, just as my granny had taught her, for the first time last year.
These fond memories of my granny are bittersweet. I never really knew my granny. I was never able to talk to her about her experiences at Bletchley Park or ask how she made such beautiful and intricate stuffed toys from start to finish. My mum sometimes tells me her memories of when I was five or six and I would look after my granny on days out. I never knew my granny in the way older members of my family did, because by the time I was able to ask questions and start to get to know people, my granny had Alzheimer's disease.
I remember the lead up to my granny, a fiercely independent woman, no longer being able to live by herself, in her own home. With increasing regularity my mum would get a worried call from our local library to say my granny had walked to the local shops but had then become confused, disorientated and did not know where she was or how to get home. Although never knowing my granny, 'as she was', her memory loss (along with other health complaints) were painful to see. By far the most painful memory for me, however, was when my granny no longer recognised my mum. This pain and the pain of others who have experienced the cruel and devastating impact of dementia shouldn't be nothing. For this reason, and in memory of my wonderful granny, I am going to take part in the London Memory Walk in London on Saturday 3 September.
Since I signed up for Memory Walk I have been speaking to friends about my reasons for taking part and sharing memories of my granny. Since talking more about my granny and Alzheimer's disease, I have been struck by how many friends have said "me too" and have gone to share their stories, memories and experiences of losing a loved one to this heart-breaking disease. If you have not had a family member receive a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer's or dementia, the sad reality is that you are likely to in the future. Even more likely is that you will have a friend whose family has been affected.
Today, 850,000 people in the UK have dementia and by 2021, this figure is set to rise to over 1 million. Many of these individuals develop symptoms of the condition and receive a diagnosis during old age, but others will develop the early onset form of the illness. The mother of the friend I am doing London Memory Walk with has early onset Alzheimer's. As was all too apparent in the distressing scene in the film Still Alice when Julianne Moore's character visits a care home: respite and residential care services for those with Alzheimer's and dementia tend to be designed for service-users who are in their 80s, not their 50s. I am all too aware of the need for more appropriate service provision for younger people with dementia, and for more support for their families, because I am taking part in Memory Walk not just to remember my granny, Audrey, but also out of solidarity to my friend Kim and her mum Janet, who has early onset Alzheimer's.
Whether you'd like to walk in memory of a loved one, or to celebrate someone you know who has dementia, Memory Walk is open to all ages and abilities. By signing up for Memory Walk you can raise money to better support those living with dementia and to help find a cure for this heart-breaking condition. At the same time, by asking friends and family to sponsor your walk, and posting photos of your walk on social media you'll be raising awareness of dementia and you may just give a friend the an opportunity to say "me too" and share their experience with dementia - either past or present. Talking to people who have been through a similar experience can really help to make family and friends who are caring for, or who have lost a loved one with dementia feel less alone.
Join your local Memory Walk now and raise money for a world without dementia: www.memorywalk.org.uk.
Claire Sewell works in communications and has a History PhD from the University of Warwick.