Imagine all your memories, amassed over a lifetime, handwritten in tiny lettering on a deck of cards, neatly stacked in chronological order. Then imagine someone deftly shuffling this deck: fancy fingerwork as they expertly weave and riffle the cards until there is no order whatsoever. They replace the shuffled cards carefully on the table in front of you and look you directly in the eye, stony-faced. You're confused: why would they do that?
A sudden gust of wind from an open window blows the cards into the air, sending them in all directions. You scrabble to catch them, to gather your precious memories up and re-stack them as they were in the original pile, but it's no use: some have disappeared out of the window; one has gone, unnoticed, down the back of the sofa. A few have slipped under the television unit. The ones you have left are jumbled and, try as you might, you just can't seem to sort them into any logical order. Distressed and frustrated, you scatter them over the table, rest your head on your folded arms, and begin to cry...
My maternal grandfather has dementia.
As I contemplate the way the illness has robbed him of his memories, that's the image that I conjure up in my mind's eye: of an elderly man, sitting alone at the table in the modest council house he shared with my nan for most of their lives (before she passed away some years ago), desperately trying to remember things.
He is surrounded by nick-nacks and keepsakes and fading pictures in frames; stacks of old black and white films on VHS that he used to watch continuously but whose storylines he now struggles to follow. The decor is old-fashioned, the swirly carpet a nod to the 70s, yet the house is neat and carefully maintained. Murphy, his faithful Irish setter, sits at his feet, his head resting on grandad's knee.
For several years we would visit him; the trips to the house in South East London taking me back to my childhood, when nan would serve up beans and sausages from her 1950s stove for my sister and I; my grandad smoking a pipe and twisting his pipe-cleaners into stickmen for us. In the summer my nan would show us how the snapdragons growing in their little back yard looked like bunny rabbits, whilst grandad tinkered away fixing things in his shed. When my mum came to pick us up they'd wave from the gate until our car rounded the bend.
Returning as an adult always felt strange as the house seemed to shrink: I felt like Alice In Wonderland after drinking the potion. Years later I'd visit him occasionally after work; grandad preparing milky tea and a Fray Bentos pie for me, whilst Murphy the red setter casually released silent stinkbombs under the table.
Gradually it became apparent that grandad would not be able to live alone for much longer. He started misplacing things; getting increasingly paranoid, confused and upset; calling the police to report perceived thefts of "stolen" belongings; starting his morning routine with a wet shave in the middle of the night.
Eventually he moved into a care home. The thing with dementia is that long periods of total memory loss, whereby the sufferer cannot remember what happened two minutes ago, are interspersed with occasional spells of complete lucidity. It's fair to say that many of the residents of the home have less frequent lucid moments than grandad, so sometimes he gets bored. Recently, he spoke about "escaping" - breaking out of the secure residential building and making a break for freedom. My mum, who is also his main caregiver outside the home, brushed it off and changed the subject.
A strong-willed old chap, 89-year-old grandad is in otherwise rude health. Never one to do as he's told (I wondered where I'd inherited that trait from), he hatched a plan - a plan so cunning that the local mischievous fox would've struggled to better it.
Waiting till the dead of night, grandad got out of bed and dressed silently, putting on an extra layer against the December chill. Tiptoeing along the corridors, he ducked past the carers' office, slipping into the laundry room and out of the unlocked fire escape. Excitement building, he scurried down the path out into the crisp night air, leaves and twigs crunching underfoot in the rural setting of the Kent countryside. Freezing cold, but warmed by the euphoria of victory, he marched on...
Until some time later, when one of the carers noticed the open door and, panicking, alerted the police - who duly located him walking along a deserted street in the early hours of the morning and returned him safely home. It was the first time the home had ever had a resident "on the run." When my mum got the call in the middle of the night, she immediately feared the worst. However, upon arrival at the care home at 5am, she was greeted by the sight of grandad, ruddy-faced with cold and excitement, sipping a mug of hot tea as he animatedly regaled the police officers with tales of his escapades in Kenya during the war.
When mum rang to tell me about grandad's little adventure it was hard not to chuckle, as we admired his sly determination and resourcefulness: "Good old G-Dad!" was my initial reaction (obviously after hearing that he was safe and well). "There's life in the old dog yet!" I joked, marvelling at his "great escape." Mum recounted how he'd told the officers with an eyeball roll that it was "like living in Pentonville."
There was a brief pause, as we both let that comment sink in. The mood turned sombre. In the cold light of day, grandad had absolutely no recollection of the previous night's shenanigans, asking instead where various relatives were - all of whom have long since passed away.
We both know - we ALL know - the reality: that it's not the care home holding grandad prisoner.
- The number of people living with dementia worldwide is currently estimated at 47.5 million and is projected to increase to 75.6 million by 2030. The number of cases of dementia are estimated to more than triple by 2050.
- Dementia is the biggest killer of women in the UK, and the third biggest killer of men.
- A new case of dementia is diagnosed every 4 seconds around the world.
- There is currently no cure for dementia and far more research is needed. You can help by signing up to Dementia Research UK to help with studies as a healthy person, as someone with dementia, or on behalf of someone with dementia.
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