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My nan and dementia

Lucy Saunders

I’ve sat down to write about my grandmother several times over the last few months, and each time I’m unsure what to say. How did my nan fit into my story? Or did I just come into the end of hers? My nan is gone now, but I like to think her story isn’t over. One of my favourite authors said that “no one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away”. In a sense, her story isn’t over yet.

I only had one grandparent growing up. This was my paternal grandmother. She was always very physically active, with a full head of brown hair and a determined attitude. She’d constantly be travelling between her three children’s homes; doing the chores and helping with the grandkids.

She was feisty and stubborn and she seemed immortal. The entire extended family used to joke that she would live forever. A small part of me was convinced she would.

Then she started to forget things.

She would get confused about which bus to catch. She’d do the washing up twice because she’d forget the first time. She’d forget to come visit or pick up the groceries. She’d get our names mixed up.

She was old, so we all laughed it off. But it got worse and worse, and eventually her kids got worried enough to take her to the GP. The diagnosis came. Alzheimer’s disease. She likely had a few years left.

Difficult questions started. Could she be trusted with her own money? How long could she safely live alone, having been fiercely independent for decades?

Money would go missing from her bank account. She would leave the house in the middle of the night and forget to eat or take her pills.

Eventually my parents made the tough call and moved her into a nursing home.

Looking back, I didn’t cope well with my nan’s dementia. I fled to the other side of the country and studied pharmacology at university, with a special focus on neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

Four years of study later and nan was still with us, even though I had no answers about her condition. The scientific community has dozens of theories but no life-changing treatments yet. Ways to slow the symptoms but no cures.

However, the thing I did take away from university was that more dementia research is needed so that scientists can make those breakthroughs.

Even towards the end of her life, my nan lived up to her reputation. The doctors gave her a few years at best, but she was still alive ten years after her diagnosis. Eventually her brain seemed to give up completely and she died in 2017, aged 83.

I have many memories of my nan, but one stands out. I was back from university for Christmas, and I went with my dad to visit her. She was curled up in her armchair in the home, a space she never moved from. Dad chatted to her for an hour but he had no response until she lifted her head and looked at him.

In the first fully coherent thing she had said in around five years, in a voice that sounded like the immortal lady that used to put me to bed, she said, “thank you for doing this for me.”

My degree revealed that people with Alzheimer’s would occasionally have moments of full clarity like this one. She immediately went back to into a huddle, once again not recognising her only son.

But for that one moment she reminded us all that she was still my nan, and she was aware of what we had done to help her.

My postgraduate education has shown me that the largest issue regarding Alzheimer’s disease is the lack of understanding and research. I’m convinced more research is needed to tackle this disease, which is why I support Alzheimer’s Research UK.

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