I’m going to tell you a story.
Well, three stories actually, but don’t worry they’re only little. I also hope they’re not too self-indulgent. I promise, there’s a point to this.
The news broke this week that Vitamin D can help prevent dementia. We all know dementia sucks. Really, genuinely – it sucks. But just admitting that isn’t enough. That’s not news. Prevention needs to be our priority.
So what about those three stories? It would probably help to tell you that I have known three grandparents in my twenty years. All three have forgotten me.
My Grandpa died of Alzheimer’s the day after my 18th birthday. (Sidenote: his funeral was the day before my Cambridge interview. They told me I was “weak” and “too emotionally involved” – but that is a post for another day). His illness was quick. So quick it ended almost before it began. That’s how it felt anyway. I’ve found that the brain takes a little while to catch up with life sometimes.
That’s how Alzheimer’s works. It’s so fast. One minute that person is present, themselves, they know you when you walk in the room. And when their eyes settle on you there’s that look of recognition. Followed by warmth and a smile.
Next minute they’re gone.
Well, no that’s not quite true. Alzheimer’s is unlike any other disease because the person you once knew and loved, their personality is gone. I don’t know where but like steam from a kettle it disappears into the air. Yet their body remains.
My Grandpa fell over, half in the street – half in the road (another side note: not one person helped him). After that, it all went down hill. He forgot who we were. I won’t share what I saw in the hospital, of any of my grandparents, because it wasn’t nice and I don’t want that to be my lasting memory of them that I share.
I said Alzheimer’s is unlike any other disease, but it is, of course, a branch of dementia. Only, dementia works much, much slower.
My Grandad had dementia for seven years before he died.
It’s strange how normal it can become. For your grandparents not to know you, I mean. After I while we’d stop going to see them. Maybe twice a year. I don’t know if that makes us bad people, but it was difficult. Not just for us, either.
Try to imagine living sat in the same chair every day (not that you’d remember day on day, I suppose, but stay with me). These people come and visit you. people who seem to know you, but they’re strangers. You have to sit and have tea with them as they desperately try to rustle up a conversation.
This is all doom and gloom. Honestly, sometimes there would be a little light of humour. If you looked at things differently. Like when my Grandad told us about how he’d won the 100m at the Olympic Games the day before we visited.
These stories were rare, though, and they depend on the character of the patient.
The drawn out nature of dementia means that you get used to the monotony of it. Almost fall into the trap of expecting the sufferer to be there all the time. That’s why, the week before I heard the news that my Grandad had died I was making plans to visit with my Dad and brother when I returned home from uni. Then the phone call came.
It was at that funeral that my Gran looked at me and my brother and said words I’ll never forget.
“Who are these two then?”
That was almost two years ago now. My Gran’s in a home now, more forgetful each day. Anyone with old relations will know that infections, while they leave our loved ones alive, always make things a whole lot worse. My Gran can’t remember my Grandad anymore. I always knew that when I heard that news, things would have reached their worst point.
I don’t know when to mourn. What’s coming is inevitable, but to an extent it’s already happened. My Gran isn’t my Gran anymore. But we just keep on, trying to pretend that she is.
And that’s why I’m writing this post. Because right now I need you all to go and do a sudoku puzzle and get yourselves some vitamin D. You’re all strangers but I need you to do that. One day, I guess, strangers might just be our families. And I like to think that we all have something in common as humans anyway.
So. Go and do a puzzle, eat a fish – a whole fish. Never regret any memories that you have. No matter how cringey, never regret them. They are memories, at least.
Please, just do those things. Do those things and you’ll be grand.