Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Knowing Me, Knowing You

“Does she still recognise you?”  That’s what everyone asks.  And for the moment, on most visits, the answer is thankfully yes.  My mum does still recognise me.  She knows me by sight.  But what does that phrase really mean?

Think of the many people you “know by sight”: members of your gym class, a cashier in your local supermarket, fellow commuters on your train, regulars at your favourite coffee shop or bar.  You might exchange the odd word, perhaps even know their name and ask after their family, their health, their plans for the weekend. 

But meet them out of context – fully-clothed in the street, instead of lycra-clad in the gym, or on the Tube, not at the till – and you may be thrown.  You know you “know” them, but are not sure where or how.  So you nod and smile, make small talk, or just keep quiet while they speak, in the hope they’ll give you some clue, and maybe it will come back. Maybe it won’t; but through this non-committal pantomime, you will have covered up your mental blank, met social expectations – and the other person need not know you don’t fully remember them.

This is now the level of my relationship with mum.  Yes, she responds to my face; I worry that her sight is declining and still value that.  I know I am lucky she can still speak and hear; we can engage to some degree.  She acts as if she knows me.  But all intimacy is gone.  An only child in my forties, I am no more significant to her than some tolerably pleasant woman she might have nodded to in a cafĂ©, when she still went shopping in town.

That’s not to say she doesn’t care about her daughter.  Ask her, and she will say she loves her very much.  But that daughter, or that “Ming”, is an abstract notion, an amorphous idea of a young girl.  Mum can’t equate that with the actual middle-aged woman who sits at her bedside. On the table before her will be recent photographs of me that I’ve labelled with my name, in hope of reinforcing the connection.  She will often be fixated with these, remarking on them to me (not always in flattering terms!), and they will be more real and interesting to her than the flesh-and-blood Ming in the room.

Since I realised mum had dementia, I always knew there might come a time when she didn’t know me.  But I thought it would be at a stage where she didn’t know or respond to anything much. I had no idea it could co-exist with relative articulacy and sentience. I never imagined the slow and insidious way that “unknowing” could creep up, or the sophistication of mum’s facility to conceal it.

There have been times in recent years when it has been painfully explicit (as I have detailed in my earlier post, I Don't Know Who You Are); but with hindsight, I can see instances much further back, when the underlying clues were there. Mum loved to give presents, for example, and rarely ventured out without lighting upon something for me: purses, make-up bags, trinkets, jewellery. However, these gifts grew more inappropriate and sometimes downright bizarre. I was puzzled when she pressed on me a lurid silver, pink and mauve bangle of a kind I would never wear - more suited to a pre-teen Britney Spears fan than an adult. 

At the time, I was rather irritated at both the apparent lapse in taste and waste of money – affronted that, in choosing this, she didn’t seem to know me.  Little did I realise that was the literal truth.  She was buying that bracelet for the teenage me in her head, not the real woman I had become, or for a notional daughter whose taste she no longer recalled.

There were other more immediately troubling incidents, when she would suddenly say things like “are your parents alive?” or “when are you going back to Hong Kong?” (I’ve never been and live in London), which might be deemed obvious signs that she thought I was someone else; but if I looked askance or remarked on it, she would instantly cover up and the moment would be past. Sometimes I would catch her looking oddly at me, but she would say nothing. Now I think she was wondering who I was.

For all my life, until dementia took hold, mum and I had been close, with no other immediate family since dad died in 1988.  It is infinitely sad that not only has our current relationship lost its roots, but I find myself questioning the last decade or more, when those roots, it seems, had already begun to wither unseen underground. How much of our intimacy then was a sham, mum just going through the motions, humouring a vaguely familiar woman whom she “must know” because she happens to be in the house?  Could it be that we were living as strangers for pretty much all of that time?

Now that we are entering the last phase of mum’s journey, I have learned that “recognition” is not the same as “knowing”.  You might recognise the cashier at your supermarket till, but do you really know her? Not unless she’s a friend. “Knowing” comes from accumulated memory, the incremental sum of facts and thoughts and feelings about another person that go beyond superficial contact.  My mum still recognises my face; she sometimes knows my name, sometimes knows I’m her daughter and sometimes knows that she loves me, but rarely all those things at once.  I am lucky to have that much.

But I have realised that she no longer knows me in the deeper sense.  As she will sometimes say herself, she “knows nothing about me”: how old I am, where I live, what I’ve done for a living, if I’m married or have children.  She doesn’t know what clothes or perfume I like, what food l enjoy, what matters most to me – even what kind of person I am. 

When I visit her now, she will usually accept my presence without question and speak to me in a way that assumes we are familiar, as if taking up where we left off.  So long as I keep the chat to a minimum or on neutral ground, we have the illusion of intimacy; but if ever I stray to something specific about our lives, it’s all too apparent that mum has no idea what I’m talking about.  I feel a distance between us – a knock on a door that cannot be answered. “Remind me again, who are you in relation to me?”, she said a couple of weeks ago, as I was leaving after a whole afternoon in her company.

The photographs here are just a tiny fraction of the images of our shared lifetime that I carry in my head. Mum would have no idea of the relationship between the first and the last or any in between; she would not be able to recognise them as herself and me.  And I’m afraid none of them is in her head. 

How do I know she doesn’t really know me, if she acts as if she does?  By her lack of interest in, or concern for, the person who visits.  I know she loves her daughter; so if she knew that person was her daughter, she would care.   

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Women's Identity: Who Cares?

Two thirds of people living with dementia in the UK are women, as are the majority of carers, both family and professional.  It's an issue that affects women disproportionately in various ways - financial, practical, political - as I have previously discussed.

This summer I was interested to take part as an interviewee in Dementia Women, an ongoing project funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and run by Innovations in Dementia and the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York, which examines women's experiences of dementia in the wider social, cultural, and emotional sense.

I was invited to speak at the launch of the booklet (written by Helen Cadbury with photography by Eloise Ross), which aims to spark discussion and raise awareness of these often hidden stories.

What I had to say was a provocation to debate: I make no apology for stating it as personal opinion - there are more than enough stats out there (see my links above!).  

For me the greatest tragedy of dementia is its effect on identity and relationships. 

And I would suggest that society more readily grasps the loss of identity experienced by men – living with dementia or in a caring role - because it equates the man’s self with his public role: doctor, engineer, lawyer, sportsman, driver, head teacher, famous author.  Something active and respected, the loss of which is visible to the outside world.

Of course there are women in these same public roles today, and maybe by the time they and their children have aged, expectations will be more equal; but older women already living with dementia now (and their female carers) are less likely to be identified by public status than their husbands, brothers, or fathers. 

Read any news headline and a woman is still more likely to be described as “wife and mother, 32” or “grandmother of four”, regardless of profession and interests. Unless, of course, she’s a sex worker – which will be deemed worthy of mention, if she’s a victim of violent crime.

Last year, there was an outcry on social media when the New York Times published an obituary with the opener:

“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom’, her son Matthew said.  But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton New Jersey, was also [my italics] a brilliant rocket scientist…”

More recently, Amal Alamuddin was feted in the media, not for her achievements as a top international human rights lawyer, but for marrying George Clooney – and, of course, for losing weight. 

Last weekend, I went to see the new Mike Leigh film, Mr Turner, in which Timothy Spall gives a bravura performance as the celebrated painter.  Like The Invisible Woman, Abi Morgan’s adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s book about the relationship between Charles Dickens and the young actress Nelly Ternan, 'Mr Turner' shows that male genius is often achieved at the expense of female sacrifice.  It’s a familiar image: the driven artist or pioneering scientist, feverishly toiling in his studio, laboratory, or office, while his wife or lover brings him a drink, tidies the house, and keeps the children and creditors at bay.

Now intellectually, we know this is an outmoded stereotype; we know women can do these things too and some most certainly do.  But on an emotional level, we still largely expect women to be the nurturers, the “supporting cast”.  Their identity, in the public consciousness is not autonomous - even if they are high-achievers - but bound up with those they care for. 

So when a woman begins to lose her faculties or starts to withdraw from professional life to care for someone else, it may pass without much notice.

Coverage of dementia in news stories and government edicts usually focuses on financial constraints: working hours lost to the economy, the cost to the NHS.  These are tangible things that affect the “male” world of politics and finance.  But what of the cost to the individual?

Women’s identities, the greater bulk of their lives, are often hidden in the domestic realm, like the body of a whale, showing no more than a dorsal fin above water.  So when they begin to lose grip of who they are, who notices?  Who cares?

And if we are so much the product of our relationships with others, what happens when shared memory erodes, and those bonds too are gone?

My mum was a singer, a teacher, chatterbox, comedienne; a lover of pretty things - perfume, jewellery, music, animals – and most of all, of me.  Who mourns the loss of all that?  Only me.  And who am I now, after more than a decade of watching dementia take her?  Single, childless, back to square one in my career; unknown even to the person who gave birth to me, to whom I have devoted those years.

Dementia is about much more than economics.  Yes, we need policy-makers to address the many financial and professional disadvantages it forces on women; but I hope this project – and all our collective efforts – will shine a light on the deeper losses of self that are felt by so many women behind closed doors.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

"Truth" or "Lies"?

In my previous post I discussed confabulation, a lesser-known variant of delusion or hallucination, which can be experienced by some people with dementia. The challenge these symptoms pose to carers is how best to respond, in order to minimise distress?

Broadly speaking, there are three approaches:

Reorientation: attempting to reassert the factual truth, to override the delusion.

Distraction: changing the subject or focus of attention, to make the person forget the delusion.

Collusion: accepting the delusion and going along with it.

Any one of these approaches may be applied at different times and in different situations with the same person; you may find that one or other is more effective with their personality, or in the context of a particular relationship; and there may be no consistency – what works on one occasion may not on another, even moments later.

In my experience, reorientation is ineffective beyond the earlier stages of dementia; distraction too can be of limited use, if the person with dementia is inclined toward obsessiveness and cannot easily be diverted.

There are also ethical questions involved in each decision, either to disabuse someone of a (perhaps comforting) delusion or to collude with their misconception; and we may consider the significance of whether the respondent is a family member or a professional – in whom do we place greater trust for “truthfulness”?

This summer I was invited by the Mental Health Foundation to give testimony at their ongoing inquiry, Dementia and Truth-Telling. This is a major study into the ethics and practicalities of responding to altered states of perception in those with dementia. I was asked to consider a literature review commissioned by the Foundation, to discuss the contents and make observations from my experience.  

These are my headline points:

“Truth” or “lies”? 

There is of course a wider philosophical question, “what is truth?”, for “truth” as a concept is largely subjective. But for our purposes here, I use the term to mean fact: when responding to a person with altered perception, should we assert fact or not? 

I would say context is key. Acceptance of benign misconceptions can sometimes be justified, if this acceptance allows the person with dementia to feel more content or helps them to be compliant with necessary actions for their material good (e.g. eating/drinking, personal hygiene, medical treatment, accepting admittance to a place of safety, allowing responsible management of their financial affairs) – and if such delusions are not themselves harmful or do not create material difficulties.

For instance, it would not be helpful to collude with a delusion that a friend, family member, or tradesman has stolen from the person with dementia or otherwise done them harm, if there is no evidential basis for this.

Such collusion or “white lies” may however be easier and more effective for professionals than for family, because they have no shared personal history to create a knock-on effect. 

Where the carer has an emotional investment in the veracity of what is said - a shared history and ongoing emotional relationship with the person - the issue is much more complex. See my post, It's (Not) So Funny How We Don't Talk Any More.

I cannot see a justified role for proactive lying in daily care – i.e. deliberately creating an untrue version of events for reasons other than the contentment and well-being of the person with dementia. If someone is already experiencing paranoid symptoms and is generally mistrustful, it seems doubly important to me not to give them any cause for justified mistrust, if this can possibly be avoided. 

For that reason, my own approach is largely to be reactive to my mum’s beliefs and expressed thoughts, rather than proactive. If she asks me a direct question, I try to be as truthful as possible, while perhaps omitting or steering her away from the more distressing details of that truth. 

For instance, if she asks where “Daddy” is (either my father or hers), I will say “he’s not with us any more” and hope she will leave it at that. If she goes on to say, “He’s not dead, is he?”, I will say yes, but in as low-key a way as possible. I will not proactively “remind” her, nor make a big deal of her having forgotten, nor go into any details unless asked, as that is likely to distress.

I generally try to accept whatever she believes in the moment, unless it has a negative result for someone else – e.g. an accusation of wrong-doing against an innocent party (myself included).

Emotion is more memorable than fact.

Dementia erodes a person’s capacity for reason, logic, and factual memory. Emotion is what remains. Therefore, a person with dementia will be more likely to register an emotional impression than the factual content of what is said or done. 

Negative emotions, such as fear, anger, hurt are unfortunately more powerful than positive emotions in my experience. My mum will remember being upset far more readily (and for longer) than any pleasurable incident. 

So it’s more important to me to support her in feeling content, than to reinforce any factual message. Whether this involves “truth” or “lies” will vary according to context; the content is relatively unimportant, as it will be instantly forgotten – it is the emotional impression (if anything) that will be retained. 


It’s noted in the Literature Review (pgs 22-23) that less time is spent by carers on social interaction than on task-based care. While I would agree that time and resources are the main determinants here, particularly for professionals, I would suggest that a feeling of being powerless to ameliorate mental distress is also a factor.

Beyond a certain stage of dementia, it seems that nothing can truly answer the fear, hurt, and loneliness in a person’s head, because it is impossible to reason away fears, and efforts at emotional comfort are limited by the difficulty of being unable to acknowledge the truth of distressing life circumstances. 

Therefore the family carer may tend to focus on practical things, as these are elements where some positive difference can be made.

Contented Dementia/Compassionate Communication: effect on family carer.

The principles of contented dementia and compassionate communication are now routinely espoused in public (in media, specialist literature/websites, and by some professionals), to the extent that dissent can be perceived as unacceptable.

These principles can roughly be summarised in layman’s terms as: don’t ever argue with or contradict the person with dementia; enter into their reality and accept that they can’t enter yours.

While I would agree that this approach can be helpful in promoting contentment in the person with dementia, I think the potential negative effect on the family carer is largely unacknowledged. 

If, as the carer, you feel constantly told by everyone that your reality does not matter, it can seem tantamount to being told that you don’t matter; and any distress, frustration, grief, or resentment you may feel is selfish, ignoble, and to be stifled, because it is “bad for” the person with dementia.

This can be hugely destructive to the carer’s mental (and indeed physical) health. It can lead to the carer effectively living under similar conditions to those of domestic abuse: e.g. always subservient, walking on eggshells for fear of upsetting the other person, constantly censoring or modifying their own words or behaviour, denying their own needs, isolated from other family and friends (of whom the other person may be jealous or mistrustful), and trapped in the house (by the other person’s separation anxiety or paranoid fears). 

A constant negation of the carer’s factual reality can lead to their feeling that they have been “erased” from the outside world. This can be mitigated to some extent by other family and friends supporting the carer’s “real” life; but for a sole carer in a domestic setting, the long-term effect can be catastrophic.

I would like professionals (and lay commentators) to acknowledge these issues and consider the holistic good of both parties, when advocating the principles of “Contented Dementia” in the home. 

My Biggest Lie.

I have said that I don’t proactively lie, only “collude” or lie by omission when necessary for mum’s peace of mind. But there was one very big exception, which posed a terrible dilemma for me.  I’ll return to that in another post…

Friday, 24 October 2014

Confabulations, No Celebrations

Confabulation. Sounds like a hybrid word, doesn’t it, like “fantabulous” or “ginormous”? And indeed it is a hybrid – of fact and fiction. If you haven’t heard of it as a term, you’re not alone; but if you care for someone with dementia, you may recognise it in action.

I’m not a medic or scientist, so I’ll describe as a layman how I understand the difference between three related symptoms of some types of dementia: hallucination, delusion, and confabulation. 

We may be more familiar with the first two:

Hallucination – seeing or hearing things that are not there.

Delusion – believing things that are not true or misinterpreting information.

While these two states can be very disturbing for both the person with dementia and those around them, they are reasonably straightforward to grasp. You can tell at once if there is, or is not, “a man in clerical robes” or “a big fat bottom!” at the end of the bed, or a woman whispering in the wall. 

Delusions, such as a belief that a dead relative is still alive, can be harder to handle, but the factual truth can be determined. 

Confabulation, however, is a complex amalgam of fact and fantasy, in which a false narrative may involuntarily be created by a person’s belief that an imagined scenario is memory. 

This imagined scenario will usually be woven around a kernel of truth: an event that actually happened, transposed to a different time and place, or involving a different set of characters; or an emotional trauma that was real, but misremembered in a different context.

And because there is an element of veracity at the heart of it and it may contain mundane, inconsequential detail as well as major incident, such a hybrid narrative may be very hard for the carer or other friends and relatives to unravel. 

For instance, my mum was a professional singer in her youth. I know that on several occasions she studied at the famous International Summer School of Music at Dartington Hall in Devon. This is her treasured photograph of the composer Stravinsky (right), taken on one of those visits in the 1950s.

At around that time, she also attended the International Eisteddfod at Llangollen in North Wales. That’s a fact. 

But in latter years, she began to tell me that she had been present to see the tenor Pavarotti “make his name” there. Now Pavarotti did perform at Llangollen in 1955 – in a choir with his father. The choir won first prize in competition. Pavarotti later gave many interviews in which he credited this as a formative experience that inspired him to pursue a singing career. 

But he was only 19 at that time and had yet to make his professional operatic debut; he would not have been noted individually. Yet my mum was adamant that she had not only been aware of him as a soloist, but that the performance had made him a star; and she had seen it happen.

Then in 2007 a cousin of mine, whom neither of us had previously met, came from abroad to stay with me for a few days on the way to a friend’s wedding. I had planned to take her to visit mum too and see the countryside around my hometown; but in the event there were terrible floods, and the water supply at mum’s was cut off for nearly two weeks. I couldn’t take my cousin there after all. Mum, however, would later talk about this visit as if she had not only met my cousin herself, but had hosted the entire stay. Her “memory” of this was based solely on what I had told her of things I had done with my relative.

Another time, I went into hospital for major surgery and was anxious about mum in my absence; the surgeon kindly called her from the recovery room to let her know I was all right. Mum was subsequently convinced that she had actually met the surgeon, describing in great detail what she had looked like and where they had met (“on the stairs”), despite this being a complete fantasy. 

She also told a friend that she had “been up to Ming’s; I didn’t go in, I just stood outside and looked up at her flat” – an account which greatly alarmed the friend, as mum was by then too frail to make such a long journey on her own and I was in any case not at home. Yet mum’s tale had sounded so plausible that her worried friend had called me to check whether it might indeed have been true. It was not; but another friend had brought mum to visit me at the hospital a few days after the operation. The surgeon had been in to check on me earlier that morning (long before mum had arrived) and I had mentioned this. So you can see where the seeds of mum’s hybrid story were sown...

Now you may say, what’s the problem? These are all fairly innocuous confusions; it doesn’t matter if they’re not true. 

And with examples like this, I agree that there’s no gain in trying to point out anomalies or assert the factual version; contradiction will only provoke distress. 

But other confabulations may not be so benign. I have detailed in an earlier post a particularly traumatic incident where mum believed that a tradesman had broken into her house and was holding me hostage. It was of course a terrible delusion, but those to whom she told this story had no way of knowing at first that it was wholly imagined. 

Similarly, she once told me, when she herself was in hospital after a fall, that she had been down the stairs (the ward was on the 11th or 12th floor and mum is lift phobic) and had sat in the foyer, where an orchestra had been playing; and that she had been taken from “the bus station” (which I later recognised from her description as the ambulance bay) to a nurse’s house, where she had been abused. 

Logically, I knew these things were all highly unlikely, if not impossible; but she believed them so completely and vehemently that I did wonder if there might be some grain of very confused truth.

Such threads of confabulation can be impossible to disentangle. The question then for carers is how should we respond? 

That’s something I’ll discuss in my next post, "Truth" or "Lies"?