Dementia: what happens when memory fails us


The year before my father died, he came with us to Sweden for a summer. He had been vital with his insanity for some-more than 10 years by then, and – mildly, sweetly, uncomplainingly – he was gradually disappearing, memories descending away, disproportion going, approval fading, in a good unravelling. But he was unequivocally happy on that holiday. He was a male who had a low adore for a healthy universe and felt during home in it; he knew a names of English birds and insects, wildflowers and trees. When we was a child, we remember him holding me to listen to a emergence carol in a woods nearby a house. Standing underneath a canopy of trees in a splendid rinse of sound, he would tell me that strain was a mistle thrush and that a blackbird. At least, we consider we remember this, nonetheless maybe we make it adult as a story to tell myself when I’m sad.

In Sweden, he picked furious mushrooms in a forest, went to a joyous crayfish celebration where he drank aquavit and wore a wreath in his white hair, sat with a palette of watercolours looking out during a meadow nonetheless his paintbrush never utterly finished it to a paper. And one evening, we took him to have a sauna – he desired saunas given they reminded him of a time he had spent in Finland as a untroubled immature man.

Afterwards, we helped him into a lake. It was a beautiful, soothing dusk; in a refugee light, a trees were massed shapes and a moon was resplendent on a water. we remember a stillness, usually a occasional path of H2O opposite a jetty.

My father, aged and frail, swam out a few yards and afterwards he started to sing. It was a strain I’d never listened before, have never listened since. He was swimming in tiny circles and singing to himself. He seemed utterly contented, happy even, nonetheless during a same time it was a loneliest sight: as if there was no one left in a world, usually him in a half-​darkness and packed silence, with a lake and a trees and a moon and sparse stars.

The edges of a self are soft; a bounds of a self are skinny and porous. In that moment, we could trust that my father and a universe were one; it was pouring into him, and he was emptying out into it. His self – bashed about by a years, picked detached by his insanity – was, in this impulse of kindness, over language, alertness and fear, mislaid and contained in a multiplicity of things and during home in a immeasurable consternation of life.

Or that is what we tell myself now, 3 years later, perplexing to make clarity of an illness that has a energy to idle a self, that comes like a pirate in a night to hide into a residence built adult over a lifetime, to mutilate and pillage and loot it, sniggering behind a shop-worn doors. The following Feb my father went into sanatorium with leg ulcers that were delayed to heal. There were despotic visiting hours and then, with an conflict of norovirus, a practical lockdown of a ward, that meant that for days on finish he was alone: nobody to reason his hand, pronounce his name, tell him he was loved; nobody to keep him tethered to a world. His leg ulcers were healed, nonetheless divided from a home he loved, nude of informed routines and surrounded by strangers and machines, he quickly mislaid his orientation and his thin reason on his self. There is a good chasm between caring and “care”, and my father fell into it.

When he during final came home, he was a spook of himself, skeletal, immobile, unintelligible and lost. No some-more saunas for him, no some-more forests and lakes and flowers in his hair; he wasn’t in a twilight of a illness now nonetheless in a entertainment dark. After several months of radically slowed-​down dying, as autumn incited to winter and with a tough cold breeze blowing, he left us during last. But opposite a memories of his terrible final months – a tiny room downstairs where he lay in a sanatorium bed watchful and watchful for zero while a birds he desired came to a bird list outward his window; a slight of washing, feeding, lifting; a nurses and doctors and carers and a whole bureaucracy of illness and death; a clarity of a mind unwell and a physique exploding and not a damn thing to be finished about it – opposite this stifling, drawn-​out ending, we set a memory of my father in a Swedish lake, in peace, in soothing eve and that puzzling alloy of a self with a world.

Nicci Gerrard photographed by Amit Lennon for a Observer New Review.

Nicci Gerrard photographed by Amit Lennon for a Observer New Review.

I used to contend that we are finished of a memories, nonetheless what happens when memories are lost? Who are we then? If we are out of a mind, where have we gone? If we have mislaid a plot, what happens to a story we are in? Even during a sour end, we never suspicion my father wasn’t himself – nonetheless during a same time we felt he had mislaid himself. He was left nonetheless he remained; he was absent and nonetheless strenuously present. There was something that endured over denunciation and recollection, a snippet perhaps, like grooves that life had ragged into him a approach a stream carves into rock. He still had his sweetness; his past lived on in his smile, his frown, a approach he lifted his fuzzy china eyebrows. It lived on in us. He competence not have recognized us, nonetheless we could recognize him. we don’t know what a word for this memorable hint is – once, it would have been “soul”.

Civilisation, control and reserve form a membrane over low waters. In all of us, mostly pushed into a dilemma of a minds, is a nervous recognition of how skinny a reason over ourselves is, how unsafe a reason we have on a possess minds and bodies.

Dementia – all a many and mostly harrowing forms of insanity – creates us ask what is it to be a self, to be human. It is mostly called a illness of a time; it is a “disease of a century”.

People speak of insanity as if it were a time bomb. In truth, a explosve went off prolonged ago, nonetheless quietly, privately, out of sight: a dark dispersion job. Men and women who live with insanity are mostly blank people – mislaid and denied by a multitude that values independence, prosperity, girl and success and turns divided from vulnerability. They are a reminders that we get old, we decay; genocide comes to us all in a end. Of all a illnesses, it is a one we now many fear. It is “the story of suffering” – and like suffering, it lasts.

And this pang spreads, from a individual, to those who caring for them and about them, to their community, to a nation as a whole. Dementia is, as one alloy pronounced to me, “profoundly unpleasant of patients, carers, health systems, amicable care… it doesn’t fit into a structures we’ve created”.

There can be no other illness that is so tangible by a impact not usually on those who live with it nonetheless on those around them. Its meanings are physiological, psychological, social, economic, domestic and philosophical. Its costs are unquantifiable – we don’t meant a financial costs, nonetheless these are outrageous (the Alzheimer’s Society estimates that, in a UK alone, a cost is £26bn and, in a world, $818bn – and usually rising – some-more than a cost of cancer, cadence and heart illness combined), nonetheless a costs in tellurian terms: a shame, confusion, fear, sorrow, guilt, loneliness. It provokes surpassing dignified questions about a multitude in that we live, about a values we reason and about a definition of life itself.

At a same time, we are a initial era to have unequivocally deliberate it mindfully. When we was a child, it was perceptibly manifest and frequency acknowledged. My grandfather on my mother’s side of a family had dementia, as did my grandmother on my father’s. Although we was wakeful of this, it was usually in a pale way: they became like total who had once been transparent in my life nonetheless were now being gradually burnished out. we was maybe broke by them, these people who used to be total of management and now were so helpless, and we was also a bit ill about a corporeal inlet of a disease, nonetheless we didn’t consider about what it was like for them or let myself suppose a tragedy that was being played out, infrequently in a form of a nasty farce. It was a stigma, a source of shame, fear and denial, and it went on behind sealed doors. The D word.

We are wakeful of it now in a approach that is radically opposite from 20 or 30 years ago and this recognition brings social, domestic and dignified responsibility. Now we can see that that was formerly hidden. In a 70s, there were about 300,000 people with insanity in a UK, widespread thinly opposite a country. Today, there are 3 times that number.

In 25 years, there will be something like 1.7 million. In a US, a occurrence of genocide from Alzheimer’s alone increasing 55% in a 15 years between 1999 and 2014.

John and Patricia Gerrard after removing engaged. They married in 1953.

John and Patricia Gerrard after removing engaged. They married in 1953. Photograph: pleasantness of Nicci Gerrard

Go into a sanatorium ward, even a ubiquitous one, and several or many of a beds are assigned by people with dementia. Go into a residential home for a elderly. Look during a obituaries. Read a news stories, a fortifying ones and a ones that make we wish to scream in sorrow. we know perceptibly anyone who doesn’t have some kind of insinuate tie to a disease. It’s all around us, in a families and in a genes; maybe in a possess futures (approximately one out of 6 people over 80 get dementia, and a comparison a age a aloft a chance; it’s like there’s a sniper in a garden). If it’s not we or me, it’s someone we love.

We can no longer usually speak about “them” – it’s “us” now, and how we face adult to this plea becomes a doubt of a common humanity. For in an age where liberty and group are so rarely valued, there are questions we urgently need to ask: what do we owe others and what do we owe ourselves? Who matters? Why do some people seem to matter reduction than others? Why do some people spin ignored, invisible, neglected, abandoned?

What is it to be human, and what is it to act in a tellurian way? The word “we” is used steadfastly and easily. It speaks of community, democracy, collaboration. It lays explain to a common voice, as if we were, as a politicians like to say, all in this together. In a same vessel – well, yes, nonetheless some people are in a first-​class cabins with a sea perspective and cocktails during dinner, others are down in a hold, and still others are not seen during all. The light doesn’t tumble on them; we don’t even realize they are on residence with us. And utterly a few have depressed into a cold H2O and they’re drowning out there in a darkness, while a rope plays on.

Those we do not see. Those we do not caring about. Those we do not mourn. Those we slight to a indicate of death… If my father had been an critical man, we consider he competence have been treated differently during his time of biggest need – and of course, he was important, nonetheless usually to those people who knew and desired him and whose lives were firm adult with his. A clarity of a preciousness of each life should be designed into a system, a society, so that we do not need to feel marker in sequence to rescue one another. We all have an requirement to one another – even to people we are antagonistic to – given a universe is “given to us in common”, to share and to pass on.

There is no we nonetheless a you, no me nonetheless us. We are during one another’s forgiveness in a end, and we should have a passionate, undeniable joining to everyone, to anyone – for them not out of adore nonetheless out of common humanity.

In a past few years, we have been meditative a good understanding about a definition of manners and of boundaries: a walls of institutions on that manners – thou shalt not – are posted; a fences around gardens, a doors (that can be close discerning or open), a borders (that are mostly some-more porous than we understood), a minds (that are also embodied); a bodies (that both enclose us and nonetheless arrangement us to a world), a we and a we, a us and a them, self and other. How most are we connected to one another and how most are we separated? How distant are we private, dissimilar people and how distant partial of a public, village life? How most can we – should we – rest on others and be relied on in a turn?

What are a responsibilities to a universe in that we live, and afterwards what are a responsibilities to a self?

To try dementia’s definition and a agonizing waste is to consider about how distant we as a multitude and as people are obliged for a pang of others: what we owe one another, what we caring about, what matters in this universe we all share. Who matters.

Steve Gentleman (the name is accurate), highbrow of neuropathology in a dialect of medicine during Imperial College London, is a investigator of a brain. He looks for disease, shrinkage, hollows, hardening, white lesions in a limbic system, amyloid deposits. we ask him if he ever feels – we onslaught for a right word, can’t find it – peculiar about dissecting brains: peculiar given of what it tells us about identity, and given in a finish all a obligatory business of being human, all a despair, anxiety, appetite, terror, adore and joy, resides in this square of flesh.

John Gerrard in his 20s.

John Gerrard in his 20s. Photograph: pleasantness of Nicci Gerrard

He smiles and shakes his head. He has no faith – maybe it would be tough to if day after day we cut brains, scalpel out morsels of executive function, episodic memory – nonetheless he is full of consternation during how forever complex, pointed and cosmetic a mind is, and how it is still puzzling to us. Because, after all, we are not usually a brain: a mind is in a body, is partial of it and in a community. There’s no finish to a possibilities.

Alzheimer’s illness leads to nerve-cell genocide and hankie detriment in a brain. Abnormalities embody beta-amyloid plaques, tangles of a protein tau, detriment of tie between a cells and inflammation. The cortex shrivels adult and a ventricles grow larger. Over time a mind shrinks dramatically until each area is affected. Yet some brains, when dissected, uncover no pointer of insanity even when a chairman has been diagnosed with a illness, while others are badly shop-worn even nonetheless a chairman seemed not to have shown signs of cognitive impairment. The couple between understandable decrease in a mind and a approach a chairman acts, feels and communicates in a universe is not straightforward, and this is given a mind lives and works in a network of reciprocal connections. Looking during a mind can't tell us all we need to know about a brain: it is so most some-more than itself – a mind in a physique in a sold life. Part of Steve Gentleman’s investigate is to review a mind that he observes with a lifestyle of a male or lady to whom it belonged, to find out patterns that will start to explain since it is that some people are quickly demolished by a illness when others are means to withstand a attacks for longer. Exercise, diet, geography, career, mood, a state of a relationship: all these things might make a disproportion to a approach a chairman responds to what is duty in a intricately folded labyrinths of a brain.

The mind on a chopping residence is inert, a routine beige thing, nonetheless neuro-images of a vital mind arrangement a fizzing connectivity, a marvel and mystery. Functional captivating inflection imaging (fMRI) measures mind activity by detecting changes compared with blood flow. The images – still and relocating – are like a northern lights, like coral reefs or trees in blossom, in mottled flux. It might seem, looking during these shimmering patterns, that here’s a mind in love, in fear, in enviousness and in a purchase of hope. But brain-​scan images are not candid photographs of a mind in action; they are representations of a areas that are operative during their hardest. It’s a bit like looking during New York City from a helicopter and observant how a crowds pierce by a streets: we learn a lot about a transformation of people over time and in response to events, nonetheless we don’t unequivocally know what it’s like to be in New York. And a mind is not a mind.

Nevertheless, a picture of a mind shop-worn by insanity is dismaying: passed grey rags amid a stately colour.

Dr Claudia Wald is consultant psychiatrist during a Kensington Chelsea and Westminster Memory Service, that provides insanity comment and diagnosis and ongoing support for people with memory difficulties. Memory clinics like this are formed on models from a US and were set adult in a early 80s in each segment of a country. She sits in her pleasing room, object descending by a window. She is high and open-​faced, and her voice is reassuring; she feels a kind place to be.

“People of your age,” she says, “start to fear their vanishing memories. With age comes strained meditative and remembering”: most forgetfulness is age-​related and non-​problematic.

We all forget as we get older, and this is normal, natural, partial of a ageing process. Dementia is not natural, it is a disease.

But still, there is a grey area, a place of doubt and trepidation, when forgetfulness deepens – when, as so many people with insanity say, something seems “not utterly right”.

In her evidence work, Claudia Wald is looking for changes in behaviour. Almost always, a initial comment is finished in a person’s home, where a atmosphere is some-more relaxed, reduction contrived, and where most can be schooled from context (the state of a house, of a fridge). She takes a notation clinical story and uses scans usually where there is evidence uncertainty: “I am perplexing to find out who a chairman was; we am looking for change.” She contingency consider what partial of a memory is affected: long-​term memory? Language? (The denunciation centre is subsequent to a memory centre.) “The bank of disproportion seeping away,” she says – afterwards adds: “This happens to us anyway.”

John Gerrard sketching during a family outing to Turkey in 2013.

John Gerrard sketching during a family outing to Turkey in 2013. Photograph: pleasantness of Nicci Gerrard

Recalling names? Faces? In her evidence criteria, during slightest dual domains contingency be influenced (language and memory, say; or memory and behaviour; or memory and clarity of direction), before she gives a grave name to a symptoms she finds.

Between a unavoidable routine of ageing and a transparent diagnosis of insanity lies a muddy domain of amiable cognitive spoil (MCI), an halt theatre that some see as a pathologising of healthy forgetfulness and others as a useful denote of destiny problems. For there is no systematic range between illness and normality; lines might be drawn, nonetheless their accurate plcae is a matter of evaluative judgment. “It’s a grey area,” says Wald. “And during what indicate in that grey area is diagnosis appropriate? What is ‘normal’ as we get older?”

Often she will find that resources have changed, so that props are nude away: a genocide of a associate who had been compensating for unwell cognitive function, going into hospital, violation a leg, relocating house. “These things can arrangement problems that had been hidden.” Depression, she says, can be a predecessor and a risk cause and it can be unequivocally formidable to treat. “Old age brings with it surpassing losses: a detriment of a spouse, of family, of friends, of work, of health. There is outrageous loneliness and fear of death.”

All this means that a diagnosis is mostly not straightforward, and mostly it is a relations or carer who notices a change – given how can a we know that a we is slipping?

“A diagnosis,” says Wald, “is usually a start of training how to live good with this condition. There can be a enigmatic comfort from meaningful there’s a name and a reason for this altered clarity of self, nonetheless some people do not wish to know.”

I notice a pointed change in her manner. She picks adult her pen: “Are we ready?”

My racing heart, my sweating palms. It’s like being behind during propagandize and doing an examination – solely we am a examination that we don’t wish to fail.

“Remember these words,” she instructs. ‘“Apple’, ‘penny’, ‘table’. we will ask we for them later.”

I nod. Apple, penny, table. Apple, penny, table.

“I am going to give we an residence that we wish we to remember. David Barnes, 73 Orchard Drive, Kingsbridge, Devon. Have we got that?”

“Yes.” we am holding a lines in my head, repeating them to myself. Apple, penny, table. David Barnes, 73 Orchard Drive, Kingsbridge, Devon.

She asks me a date and we get it wrong by a day. My heart bangs harder. She asks me who a primary apportion is and this we get right – nonetheless we am articulate in an infrequently jocose, self-​conscious demeanour that we don’t like during all. My face feels stretched.

She asks tells me to count behind in sevens from a hundred.

I was never discerning during maths. “Ninety-​three,” we say. “Eighty-​six.

“Seventy-​nine.” Apple, penny, table. “Seventy-​two.” David Barnes.

Next we have to give as many disproportion as probable starting with “P”. My mind blanks nonetheless off we shoot, hectic; my voice comes out scratchy and we am grinning foolishly. The disproportion arrive as jerky Latinate multisyllables – parsimonious, peri-menopausal, penitential, patriarchal, pertinacious, programmatic, plausibility – with a occasional home-​run of elementary ones: put, plant, pot, press, poppy, potato, poem. As we strech a finish of my minute, we realize we forgot all a ph’s.

I haven’t told her how we find it increasingly tough to recognize faces. we haven’t told her that infrequently I’ll destroy to see what’s in front of my eyes.

I repeat a address, and a weight of holding it in my mind rises from me. we say: “Apple, penny, table.” My heartbeat is slowing. She asks me to pull a clock. we do so and afterwards see, appalled, that I’ve put one o’clock during midnight and midnight nowhere during all.

“You’re fine,” says Claudia Wald. we know we am really, nonetheless we wish to weep.

The illness crept into my father’s life solemnly and silently, no shop-worn windows or alarm bells shrilling, usually occasional rustles in a night, a creak on a stairs, peculiar things blank from their common place nonetheless not missed. we don’t know when he suspected and we don’t know when we did either, or that came first. His mom had had insanity during a immature age; his elder sister too. And my father had always been absent-​minded – that is no indicator of dementia, nonetheless it felt like one, as if his destiny was woven into his benevolent, preoccupied personality, a approach he could disappear into his possess tip universe where no one could follow.

Fog thickened. His obscurity became a kind of lostness.

His happiness (perhaps a form of stoicism) was punctured by an stress that infrequently blighted his final decade, even when he was – this is one of those catch-​all phrases that catches reduction than it drops – “living well” with a condition.

Time heals; time undoes. In those sliding-​down years there wasn’t one thing, a sold event, nonetheless of march we demeanour behind now and we recognize a signs. When he struggled to remember a name of a flower that grew in a hedgerow.

When his hand, holding a mop of tea, shook. When he mislaid his conference assist nonetheless again, mislaid lane of what he was saying, mislaid his approach (but we all do that). Scraped a automobile opposite a gateway. Left a pivotal in a lock. When we asked him a time and he told us a cricket measure (but he always was absent-​minded). When on his face we would see an countenance we didn’t recognize (but he was always a small mysterious: he stood usually out of reach). We didn’t speak about it during first: when is a indicate during that we say, Do we consider that something is wrong, that your memory is commencement to destroy you?

There came a time when we all knew. He went to see a doctor; he had his memory test; eventually he perceived a sentence, hedged about with reassurances and strategies and tact, nonetheless there it was nonetheless: we have dementia. For me, it wasn’t a punch to a solar plexus, some-more like a soothing poke that pushed him over that moveable line – from meaningful unequivocally to unequivocally knowing. In fact, we can’t even remember conference a news.

This is an edited remove from What Dementia Teaches Us About Love by Nicci Gerrard, published by Allen Lane on 4 Apr (£16.99). To sequence a duplicate go to or call 0330 333 6846

Nicci Gerrard will be articulate during a Emmanuel Centre in London on 1 April. Tickets are accessible from


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