‘Dementia and the threat of losing memories’

Jan 30, 2020
Dementia is a cruel disease, where those who have it may even forget how to chew and swallow, says Jacqui. Source: Getty Images

I used to nurse in a dementia wing, showering and dressing the residents, helping them to eat and trying to be their ears and eyes sometimes, but also give them a little bit of hope a reason for getting up. We took them on outings or to music sessions or went to the garden. Until I was too old myself I kept doing that job.

It is at least 10 years since I gave up my work there. I loved it for the time I was able to do it. I was 70 when I retired.

Helping care for patients with dementia
Jacqui with her colleagues entertaining at the aged care home where she used to work with patients with dementia. Source: Jacqui Lee

Memories of some of the residents are always with me, like this one:

As we chatted I washed away the staleness of the night, and the smell was soon of soap and talcum, and the clothes waited on the warm pipes to cover her furrowed skin. The stress of not really knowing why she felt so sad and alone now often overwhelmed her and she would be shrouded in her misery. Fragments of recollection pierced the mists and she remembered something special. The birth of her son or the dances and the young men she danced with, when she had hair down to her waist. These things I stored so I could provide anchors for her, something I could remind her of when the melancholy days came.

“How about this dress, it’s really pretty?”

“Yes,” she said, “I think Mum brought it in.” As Freda* was nearly 95 I knew this was not the case.

“Did Mum buy all your things?”

Suddenly aware, Freda said, “She was a good mother, she often bought bits of material and got her old machine out to make something for me.”

Dressed now, hair combed, her whiskers shaved and a bit of lipstick, Freda faced another day. I took her to the lounge to wait for a muffin and a coffee. Sitting her in a cosy chair with a view of the garden I impulsively gave her a hug.

“I love you,” she said. That small moment of warmth gave us both the strength to get through the next few hours.

But residents like Freda brought home how sad it was to lose everything. What makes me even sadder is hearing that two of my dear friends around my age are also suffering this cruel disease.

One was the most amazing personality, long blonde hair and a brilliant dress sense. She was also the best cook. Dinner parties at her home were amazing. We once worked together in a bistro, we sparked off each other and had a brilliant time working the lunch time bars and serving food. We both had quick wits, both enjoyed talking to people … We were like the terrible twins.

My dear friend is not here in Australia, perhaps it is better that we can’t meet again, I like to remember her as she was. That sparkling girl in her late-30s who had such a far reaching influence on me, the friend I went to lunch with if she visited me in Bath in the United Kingdom. How we loved window shopping and drinking wine together … Happy days. To me she will remain in a memory, tossing her long blonde hair and looking like a fashion plate.

Another friend also has the same dementia diagnosis. She too has coped well until now as there are new drugs that can keep it at bay. Eventually though dementia will erode her personality as it has done to all the others. It robs the person of simple things like reading and writing letters. In fact the first clue I got that something was wrong was when I received a letter from her, it was scrawled across the page, disjointed and not quite making sense. It was a flag waving and I knew even then she might have the early stages. Sadly I was right.

For all of us, in our later years, and I am 80, it can happen. That is why I keep busy, stay social, and enjoy music and sessions that are outside the home. I don’t stay in if I can go out, turning in on yourself lets things stagnate. Stimulate that brain, write a blog, listen to music, try learning a new language. All those things can help. Get out in the fresh air, even a stroll round the garden. I am unable to walk long distances now, but try when I can. Also a positive attitude helps, so does a good diet. But in the end guess it is just the hand of fate. So hope for you and for me the fickle finger of fate moves on and does not strike us!

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