Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Old Timer's Disease

I have Giles Fraser to thank for this. It offers some encouragement to those who are going through a similar experience. My father's last surviving sibling, at the age of 86, has been diagnosed as having Alzheimer's (or as one child called it, Old Timer's) disease. His only daughter is trying her best to do the right thing by him.

"AS THE elderly lady leaves church, she thanks me for the service. I respond by giving her a big squeeze and a kiss. As she totters off, I hear her complaining about the over- familiarity of the vicar. I chuckle: she is my Gran, who has had dementia for years, and no longer knows who I am.

"Back in her care home, she has persuaded fellow residents that she was once a nun from St Joseph's. To complement this new identity, Sister Audrey (as she calls herself) has found a remarkable silver lurex wraparound top. My family has been getting nuttier. The other week, my Mum, who is President of the local Women's Institute, started a Peter Kay "Show me the way to Amarillo" conga in the lighting department in John Lewis in Peterborough. For her, respectability and free-spiritedness battle it out, and a certain middle-English eccentricity usually wins. But for my Gran it's different. Dementia has brought about an Indian summer of happiness in what has been a tough and often unhappy life.

"Those who suffer from senile dementia often lose their worries about what other people think of them. For some, this can mean an unkempt appearance and a broader command of Anglo-Saxon than the blushing relatives ever remembered.

"But those who, like my Gran, have fought against a debilitating sense of social inferiority all their lives, are released from this dreadful burden. We hear a great deal about old people's homes being God's waiting-rooms, reeking of neglect and incontinence. But, for Sister Audrey, it may well be the place where she has finally come into her own.

"Re-clothe us in our rightful mind:' we sing. Yes, but what is our rightful mind? I met Iris Murdoch a couple of times -once after she had just given a lecture on Plato, and, years later, when she was lost and confused in the University Church in Oxford. Surely, it was the mind of the erudite don that was Iris Murdoch's "rightful mind".

"Yet, for my Gran, most of her life was characterised by a crushing nervousness and anxiety. Only now, as she looks after her fellow residents, and starts to experiment with her wardrobe, does she give some indication of the person she might have been, had she been liberated from her demons.

"I wonder: could it be, for some of us, that it's only when our schemes have all gone foggy that we are released to become the people God really wants us to be?"

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