Frontlines – Alzheimer’s

One of our team of practitioner columnists describes her family’s experience of Alzheimer’s

Memories and reality live side by side for some of my family, writes Jennifer Harvey

About 20 years ago my grandmother turned up on my doorstep, having walked up and down hills in the snow, from her sheltered housing three miles away. She was then in her eighties, and was looking for her mother.

She knew her mother’s address, and where it had been. She was looking for a warren of back-to-backs, long since demolished for slum clearance. In their place was one of the first and largest deck access blocks in Britain, built in the 1950s to relocate former slum dwellers, with their old neighbours and their old street names, to the “streets in the sky”. By this time of course, it had itself become a slum.

Her mother had died long before. But she was looking in the right area, and she knew that I lived nearby, and found her way to my house. When I told this story to a friend, she could not understand how, on the one hand, my grandma could think she had a mother alive and living in a long demolished street; and on the other hand know she had a grown up granddaughter, and know where she lived.

To me, this seemed fairly normal behaviour for my family. Anyone familiar with Alzheimer’s will know what I mean. At the time I was going through an Isabelle Allende House of the Spirits phase. This is about a house where the dead and the living mix freely, in the sense that when people we love die, we remember them, and they are always with us in our memory.

We all recognise this concept, but for people with Alzheimer’s the boundaries are blurred. The function of memory is closely linked with that of imagination. They can live in a (real) world peopled by their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren; but they can also access the imaginary world of their dead loved ones, their parents and grandparents, and often their spouse. When I visited my grandma at about this time, she was in a sheltered flat. In grandma’s mind, grandad was invariably working on one of his inventions in the cupboard by the door. In reality he’d been dead a year or two, but I guess having him around was a comfort.

We’re a generation on now, and it’s my mother’s turn. House of the Spirits, here I come.

Jennifer Harvey is a day services co-ordinator working with people with learning difficulties

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