Laughing in the face of loss: how Nana’s dementia helped inspire my first novel

‘I’ve always been surrounded by older people and, as a writer, felt it a privilege to sit beneath the weight of their wisdom and incredible stories’

Jan Carson:  I wanted to take an honest look at some of the many ways old age can feel like a loss. However, Malcolm Orange is not a sobering novel. It’s more of a raucous celebration and a challenge to embrace hardcore living. Photograph: Jonathan Ryder

Jan Carson: I wanted to take an honest look at some of the many ways old age can feel like a loss. However, Malcolm Orange is not a sobering novel. It’s more of a raucous celebration and a challenge to embrace hardcore living. Photograph: Jonathan Ryder

Tue, Jun 3, 2014, 14:47

xIn 2000 my grandmother went to the local grocery shop and tried to buy milk with Spanish pesetas. Spain had long since embraced the euro and besides, we lived in rural Ulster, not the Costa del Sol. At the time we laughed. It was a funny incident and not so far removed from my grandmother’s slightly eccentric personality to be unbelievable. Later, there would be other incidents: forgotten errands, confused telephone calls, the day she tried to get into a stranger’s car, each incident more serious and sobering than the last until the day my grandmother hid herself in the spare bedroom, terrified by the stranger in her living room; a man she’d been married to for more than 40 years. Watching my grandmother succumb to dementia was an extremely formative experience for me. It’s a journey many of my friends have also taken recently as we watch our parents and grandparents develop an illness which will soon affect one in three people over 65.

Nana, as we continue to call her, was an amazing pianist, a blistering conversationalist and friend to everyone she met. She was known locally for her warmth and her impeccable style. In the days running up to her funeral, many strangers shook my hand, and repeated the mantra, “your grandmother was a real lady”. Dementia swept through Nana like a plague leaving her incapable of playing the piano or forming coherent words, pathetically thin with a wardrobe reduced to nightdresses and comfortable slippers and, most upsetting of all, occasionally afraid of her own family members. Dignity became a major priority for our family. Dementia had taken so much from my grandmother and we worked hard, with fantastic support from friends and professional carers, to help Nana retain her beautiful personality for as long as possible.

We sang to Nana, read to her, continued to talk with her even when conversation seemed to be pointless and, right up to the end, tried to ensure her room was decorated and she was dressed with some of the style which had so typified her pre-dementia life. It wasn’t an easy journey. It destroyed us a little when she could no longer play the piano; broke our hearts when her impeccably set hair became thin and ill-inclined to curl. In 2007 after a long battle my grandmother passed away, greatly diminished in almost every sense, yet still, as I held her hand, during the final hours, very much the same person I’d loved and looked up to for my entire life. In the last few days we sang to her and, still enamoured with the music which had sountracked her entire life, she did her best to sing back.

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