Climbing the mountain

A little while ago, I read a book called Elizabeth is Missing; a mystery novel where the story is narrated by an elderly woman who has dementia.  Her condition worsens over the course of the novel, but her voice gives an insightful, imaginative and powerful view of the world from the eyes of a someone living with dementia.

Those of you who have looked into why I’m doing this marathon malarkey will have noticed that dementia has touched my family more than once, one way or another.  The narrator of the novel reminded me, in particular, of Damma – my maternal grandmother.

Damma didn’t have Alzheimer’s, I don’t think.  But she certainly had some form of dementia.  For a long time, she managed at home with my mother as her main carer.  Later, we had professional carers visit her a couple of times a day, and later still (she lived well into her 90s) she moved into a residential home not far from Mum.  To begin with, she learnt to cover her condition with various strategies and coping mechanisms, but as it worsened she was often noticeably absent and her learned behaviours to cover her memory gaps became less and less effective.  Often she was unaware of this, but from time to time the clouds would part, and she would become uncomfortable or embarrassed by her condition.

I wanted to write something here about her because many of the examples of her condition are quite comical and endearing.  So I rang Mum, this morning, to ask if she would mind.  She said no, provided I wasn’t planning to be unkind (as if!).  I explained that I wanted to talk about Damma’s lapses, and Mum said “Oh! Why don’t you write about climbing the mountain?”   It was a new story to me.  I’d been planning to write about the time she rang the police to report that Mum had stolen her false teeth; or the time that we discovered that the reason her hearing aid *refused* to work properly was because she’d been religiously putting her eyedrops in it twice a day, as prescribed…

It seems that Mum was visiting Damma, one of the last times she was hospitalised.  Damma was bored – always an opportunity for mischief – and wanted to go somewhere.

“Where do you want to go?”, asked Mum

“I want to climb that mountain!” exclaimed Damma, pointing through the door of her room.  Mum followed her indication, and could see nothing.

“What mountain, Mum?”

“That one!” Damma became more insistent, and pointed again.  Mum followed her finger, and realised that Damma was pointing to the man in the opposite bed.  He was lying with his knees raised, forming a peak under his covers.  “I want to climb that mountain! Will you fetch the car? We could take the dogs!”

By this time, Mum had given up trying to bring Damma back to her, and had learnt to join her in her adventures.  She asked if she could bring Polly and Lucy, the cairn terriers of my childhood.

“NO! Certainly not!” said Damma, with righteous indignation.

“Well which dogs will we take, Mum?” asked my mother, and Damma reeled off the names of every dog of my mother’s childhood.

“And there’s a man selling chickens on the way.  We could buy some chickens!” she exclaimed, excitedly!

“Where will we put them, Mum?  The car will be full of dogs?!”

“Oh Clare!! We’ll just squeeze them in!”


“Only.  You’ll have to pay! I haven’t got my purse!!”

I’m not sure whether they ever went to climb the mountain, or whether Damma recovered herself, or retreated into confusion and befuddlement, but I love this story.  It works for me on so many levels – it’s a beautiful illustration of dementia sufferers’ retreat into their past, which becomes such a lucid, present reality for them; of the need for their family, friends and carers to tolerate these lapses and go with them whenever it’s safe to do so: I’m convinced that both Damma and my stepmother may not have known who we were or why we were there, but they knew we were friends, and there to support them.  And it’s a rather fabulous metaphor for marathon training… climbing a mountain with a carful of menagerie and always managing to squeeze more in.

I do wish she’d taken Polly and Lucy, though – they did love a good mountain!