I think about loss from time to time, as you probably know if you’re a regular reader over here. I’ve discussed recovery from loss of a baby and other people’s reactions. But, we don’t only struggle or grieve over the loss of a person – whether they were fully-formed or not. Sometimes loss is part of growing into the person we have become, sometimes it leaves us feeling like something’s fundamentally missing, sometimes we can’t remember what it was like before we lost whatever it was. In this series of posts, I’ve asked some of my favourite blogging colleagues to write about a loss that they’ve experienced and how it affected them. You can find the full list here.
This post is from Jamie. I’m not sure how we “met”, but we’re been exchanging comments and tweets for a while now. I feel like we’re on pretty much the same wavelength and his blog is an excellent source of giggles, book reviews and lovely poems. Plus he has an actual, real book! The Fathers, The Sons and The Anxious Ghost.
I’m honoured that Jamie has chose to share such touching reflections on dementia, they echo some of the experiences my own family went through with my gran over the last few years.
Losing Touch – Reflections on Dementia
It was great to be invited to write a guest blog post for Smelly Socks and Garden Peas because I am a massive fan of their blog. Being on the subject of dealing with some kind of loss, I instantly thought about my relationship with my maternal grandmother (better known as ‘nan’). So, this is a bit of an emotional reflection of how everything changed when my nan started to show signs of developing dementia.
Going Back To The Fens
I grew up in a tiny village in the Fenlands of Cambridgeshire, with an absent father and a supportive maternal family. My mum was 19 when she had me and so I began life living with her, my nan and grandad and my teenage aunty. My first memories were very happy and most of them involved my nan, as she looked after me while mum was at work and I went with her wherever she decided to go.
In those days, health and safety wasn’t really a thing so I found myself often hanging around the farm where nan worked, playing in the fields while she tended to crops, or helping out on a potato riddler. A riddler is a funny covered-over trailer with two conveyor belts travelling in opposite directions. As the tractor pulls it along, the potatoes pop up, mixed with leaves and roots. Nan’s job was to sort the rubbish out and shove it into the other conveyor belt quickly, leaving only potatoes on the original belt. I would help her make sure only the best potatoes made it through. Yes it was dangerous because of the machinery, but I cherish this time spent with nan and the laughter between her and her friends as we went through a day on the farm.
Don’t get me wrong, I was close to my mum too. She would come home from work and cook for me, then bath me and read me a book. She was so enthusiastic about reading and gave me a bug that I have kept until this day. One of my favourite memories was a family holiday staying in a bed and breakfast hotel in Blackpool. We took my great nan and had such a memorable week and I was delighted to go back to Blackpool in 2021 and relive some of those experiences. This only happened because Covid stopped me going on my planned holiday to Copenhagen, but I am so pleased that I went (here is my Blackpool post). Nan and mum made my eighties holidays so much fun!
Nan was a strong woman and still is. She can be quite judgemental and may sound sharp when she talks. Sometimes I think that is just the Fenland way and her bark is definitely far worse than her bite. When I went to University, I would often pop to see her at the weekend as she was closer to Leicester than my home town. After buying a house, nan would do little jobs for me such as cleaning my car (she insisted on doing it whenever I visited her for a Sunday roast) and popping to my place to weed my garden. I thought that everything between us was fine and then suddenly she became more distant.
Nan became more hostile to my grandad, who had been diagnosed with kidney disease. She seemingly resented having to look after him and started to act differently, almost overnight. When he passed away she stuck to my side at his funeral but I felt a change in her personality, especially when she stayed for a very short time at his wake and insisted I took her home early. In fact she was the very first guest to leave but I was not ready to go so I drove her home and returned, feeling a bit let down by her. She didn’t shed a tear over grandad dying and that was weird for me, especially as he was such a lovely man and cared for her so much.
A while later, nan was taken to hospital as she had had a fall and pushed her shoulder out as well as breaking one of her bones. My family were saying that she had become uncaring and harsh and when we visited her in hospital she was urging us to go away all of the time. This was hard to take for all of us but especially me, as I always had a close connection with nan, but she was treating me like a stranger.
She then moved into a short term care home placement and eventually went home with carers coming three times a day. Nan would ask me to get her medicine or do jobs for her but would never talk about family or friends or ask about my life. As soon as I had done the task she wanted doing, she would tell me to go away immediately.
Soon we referred her to a doctor again and had her mental health assessed. They were concerned that she had dementia and everything started to make a lot of sense. It was a sad realisation but my mum and aunty were kind of relieved that her apparent lack of feelings had a medical cause.
There were still things that made little sense to us. For instance, with certain things she was still sharp as a knife. Nan can still tell you when her electric bill is due and remind you repeatedly about paying her rent. Yet she can’t recall her childhood any more and has stopped mentioning the sister who lives four doors away, who was always a big part of her life. When her brother was recently diagnosed with colon cancer, nan simply asked if there was anything missing from her shopping.
I didn’t want this to become a ‘feeling sorry for myself’ post so I want to finish by saying how funny and caring my nan had always been. She would do anything for anyone. She taught me to do Maths and tie my shoes as well as make sausage rolls and apple pie. Her nosey nature has been passed on to me and that is one of the things I miss most about her; the ability to have a little gossip, whilst she twitched the living room curtains, looking for more potential scandals. These would range from her assuming everyone visiting the neighbours were having affairs, to critical comments about their lawns and hedges. Let’s face it – an uncut lawn is scandalous – right?
Dementia changed my nan for good but didn’t destroy my wonderful memories of growing up in the Fens under her guidance. I would like to thank Smelly Socks for enabling me to reflect upon my experience and bring to the foreground a mix of feelings, some sad and many heart-warming. Dementia is ruthless and unhinging but I have come to realise the sufferers cannot help having personality changes. Only things such as music therapy can help to keep their memories alive for them, but I hope that medical breakthroughs improve the situation in future.
Thank you for reading and thank you again Jamie for sharing your thoughts on losing someone to dementia.