Sometimes it feels as if the modern age is defined by health problems, conditions that stem from our living longer, or in a different kind of society, or sometimes it’s just a case of being able to use technology to redefine something that always existed. And so we now have anorexia, depression and obesity,which had different names or no names at all in previous generations.
After my granny had lived with us for a few years, she began to be ‘wandered’, a state that progressed to confused, difficult and eventually downright aggressive. We knew here was a physical cause but could not have explained it. Now it's called dementia and we know a great deal more about the many forms it can take, although there's still not much we can do about it. And as a modern concern it's cropping up more and more in memoir (my moan about this one was nothing to do with the subject matter) and in fiction.
In fact the first novel in which I saw this addressed directly, Margaret Forster’s Have the Men Had Enough, is over forty years old now but I suspect if I reread it I might still think it’s the best. The Scottish Granny is an unforgettable character in her own right as well as the catalyst for a family crisis. If you're at all interested in this topic do check it out. And for those who don't know Forster or would like to be reminded, Kathleen Jones has written a useful and interesting overview of her life and work.
But the last year has seen a spate of new interest. In Kirsty Wark’s The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle (feels like a Scottish theme is developing!)the heroine’s mother Anna has just got to the point of needing looking after and this situation and its effect on the family make a poignant sub-plot to the main theme of the book. (Elizabeth Pringle is a comparative stranger who bequeathed her house to Anna). In fact I did wonder if Anna's dementia began as a plot device to give her daughter the power of decision-making, but if so it still worked in terms of the family conflict it provokes. Maybe the solution to caring for Anna is found a bit too easily and the ending has a rosy glow, but this isn't a hard-hitting kind of a book. The main story of Elizabeth Pringle is very touching, though, and the locations had me itching to go to
Hard on the heels of this one, I read Costa first novel winner Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing. It’s very much in the modern vein of combining mystery with psychological drama but Healey’s trick is to put us in the head of Maud, the dementia victim, and to show us how everything she does makes sense from her point of view, although to any outsider – including her daughter - her memory lapses and aggressive behaviour are frustratingly incomprehensible. Maud’s quest to find out what has happened to her friend Elizabeth is intercut with an episode involving her sister which she remembers in vivid detail from the post-war years. I found this a convincing - and unsettling - portrayal of dementia, and although there is a kind of resolution, there’s no shying away from the fact that Maud is not going to get better.
And finally .. over Christmas I spotted Quartet on the box, a beautifully produced and acted ensemble piece about the residents of an old-folks home. From the trailers I expected some light relief, but what struck me most was Pauline Collins' portrayal of, you guessed, a woman on the threshold of dementia. Maybe it's just my age, but despite the presence of Billy Connolly I found it more sobering than 'wickedly funny'. But then it is a sobering subject.
Up to now our knowledge of the disease hasn't produced any cure and maybe it never will, but as time goes on we are beginning to see ways of halting its progress or ameliorating its symptoms. Meanwhile we are at least acknowledging its existence and the impact it can have on so many of us.