WE GO to visit an elderly relative with dementia. It’s a good day today, she sort of recognises me, though it is clear that I intermittently segue from being Arabella to being my aunt at my age.
It doesn’t seem to distress her, though when obvious anomalies crop up she frowns and picks fretfully at the thread of the discussion, as if determined to find out at exactly which point it will unravel. I don’t contradict her. It seems rude to so openly acknowledge her confusion, although maybe it’s just patronising not to.
But when she talks about my father in the present tense, I tense. Do I collaborate with her confusion by reminding her that he is dead and that he died quite some time ago? Or is it cruel to inadvertently present an old grief to her as a new one?
Luckily, she reaches another topic and I don’t have to select a rock or a hard place. But the dilemma remains.
She’s never distressed with the dementia, which we’re deeply thankful for.
I’ve looked after lots of people with dementia, the most upsetting being those who constantly ask for long-dead relatives or are determined to catch the last bus to Surbiton, protesting, when gently orientated, that they must get there. It’s a head-on collision between a Chekhov play and something by Alan Bennett, and it is deeply upsetting.
I once read that you need a tiny bit of the past with you and that it acts like a rear-view mirror in deciding where you are and where you’re going. Perhaps that’s the most wounding aspect of dementia – it acts like a vandal, smashing the mirror and leaving people disorientated and bereft. And the effects of dementia are not confined to the patient. The impact is felt and reverberates throughout the whole family.
Dementia truly is a thug of a condition.
Arabella Sinclair-Penwarden is a newly qualified staff nurse