No one close to me has ever had dementia. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I was very close to a person with Dementia for a brief period. About four feet away from them, to be precise. It was during my only ever stay in hospital a few years ago. His name was Pete.
During the 2010 World Cup, I spent a short while in a hospital room. There were four beds and a big window, which was usually open as it was pretty hot weather, and a TV in the corner. Whenever the football was on, the fanfare of vuvuzelas, a sound like angry bees, competed with the patients’ snoring for ‘ Most Annoying Racket’ award.
In the bed next to me was a man in his late 60s, who was visited every day by his wife, a quiet and friendly lady. His grown up children visited once. He recognized his wife but struggled to place the kids. Pete had a rapid onset form of the disease, the name of which I can’t remember, though his wife did tell me. She also shared that, only a few months before, apart from being a little forgetful, he had been fine but had then deteriorated dramatically, quite quickly, so had been admitted for assessments. This sleight, calm woman seemed resigned and accepting of the situation, but some days the strain showed through her kindly, composed features.
Pete was generally a cheerful sort, a big man, with a big smile who was always chuntering away, head nodding this way and that. He couldn’t hold any coherent conversation really. I would say, ‘’Alright Pete?’’ and he would look up smiling, sometimes a thumbs up. I’d say things like, ‘’Nice day, innit, Pete, nice weather?’’ or ‘’You’re enjoying that rice pudding aren’t you, Pete?’’ and he would nod and eat a little before becoming distracted. He would sometimes have little, bed-shaking conniptions in the middle of the night. On one occasion he seemed particularly upset. ‘Alright there Pete? Everything ok?’’ He looked distressed as he pointed a finger at the window. ‘’They’re out there’’, he said. ‘’They’re watching me’’. ‘’No Pete, you’re ok mate, you’re safe, there’s no one there, we’re high up, no-one can get in here’’. Pete looked unconvinced. In the day times, he was often very flirty with the nurses. ”You’re lovely” then winking at me. ”Lovely, her”, whilst the nurse told him he was a cheeky one, and patted his hand.
One day Pete was on his bed, fumbling around with a small device. He was turning it over in his shaky hands and dropping it on the covers, then picking it up again. He looked up at me, frustrated, and held the thing up. It was an electric shaver. ‘’What do you want, Pete, do you want to switch it on?’’. He muttered and gave his usual confused expression.
I went over and took the shaver. ‘’Here’s the switch Pete, look. That turns it on and off. Are you going to have a shave? Do you want a nurse to come and help?’’. He took the razor back and fiddled with it some more, before pretending to press the on switch. He then mimed lobbing the razor across the room. I watched bemused as he hunkered down low, screwed up his face and covered his ears. To him it was a hand grenade..
He opened his eyes and looked at me with a little grin. I smiled back, unsure whether he thought he was actually back in the war, or was acting out a memory, as he hadn’t actually let go of the ‘grenade‘. ”Were you in the army then, Pete?’’. A bit of smiling and chuntering, but nothing that made any sense to me.
Later, I spoke to a friend of mine on the phone, telling him about the ward and the other patients. I mentioned Pete, recounting the electric razor incident, which you had to smile at. My friend, a care-worker, said, ‘’Ask him what he did for a living?’’. I replied that he doesn’t even recognize his own kids anymore. ‘’I bet he remembers his job. I’ve worked with loads of people with dementia related conditions, and a lot seem to remember that. Try it, see what he says’’. I said I would.
The following afternoon, the football was on, vuvuzelas abuzz, the other patients watching, and Pete laid on his bed, looking vacant but relaxed, ‘’Alright Pete?’’. He looked up smiling and said something unintelligible. ‘’What did you used do for a job, Pete?’’. He stared at me, head suddenly still. ‘’When you were working Pete, what was your job? Where did you go to work?’’.
He looked towards the window for a moment and then back at me. ‘’London Transport. I was an auditor at London transport. Yes, lovely. Twenty five years I was there. Good job that was, yeah.’’ He smiled, his eyes flickering lucidity, and just for a second or two I saw a tiny spark of the man he must have been. He started into space, muttering and chuckling to himself. I tried to continue the conversation, but it had gone. Then a nurse came to change his catheter. ”Hoo, ho ho, you’re nice”…
I mentioned the job thing when is wife visited later, and she confirmed that that had indeed been his career. She didn’t look surprised at his remembering and I realised that she must have seen lots of flickers of her pre-Dementia husband and knew intimately the nuances and flow of his condition. I was just a spectator. During that visit, she showed him a photo of his children, and his grandchild. He looked between the photo and his wife, chattering, distractedly. No idea.
This little experience I had was sad, touching, shocking, and yes, even funny at times, especially his chatting up the nurses. But mainly it was scary to think this condition could come to any of us one day, out of the blue. So if there’s any way you can help, even if it’s just by raising awareness. Please do. For Pete’s sake..