Dementia: Finding the Needle of Good in the Haystack of Bad

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You either laugh or you cry‘. This simple, sweeping statement was frequently flung around by my late grandmother, injecting a sense of light-heartedness to the hardest moments, sweetening the most bitter of pills. I often repeat these six words, causing a nostalgic smile to tug at my mum’s lips as she forces down the bitter pill that is my granddad’s dementia.

He has recently been diagnosed with both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia and admittedly this did not come as a great surprise. A small indication had been when he addressed our Christmas card to Helen, Jon, Annie, “Sarah” and Beth (much to my sister Laura’s disgruntlement – we called her Sarah for weeks). His diagnosis did, however, serve as a rather unwelcome punch in the stomach. A heavy cloud began to gather over our family and the escalating repercussions began to chip away at us. I will admit that when I visited my granddad after the diagnosis, I found myself fighting back tears and attempting to swallow the watermelon of a lump in my throat as he asked for the third time that evening what university I attended. We both clung on a little longer when we hugged goodbye and the fear that I would lose the witty, wise, and general firework of a granddad that I’d cherished so much began to manifest itself.

So far, his condition has progressed slowly and I still found myself strewn across his sofa having heated discussions about Brexit, waving my arms enthusiastically as we polish off another glass of wine and despair at the state of our government. Our favourite topics of discussion haven’t changed – how my mum works too hard, his favourite news presenter, the Queen and Stephen Hawking. He still makes some absolutely cracking jokes, ‘would you like a cocktail, granddad‘ ‘I’ll have the tail but I’m not sure about the …’, and he still cups my cheek and says he’s proud of me in the same way he always has.

That said, our lives have become littered with incidents where his dementia has barged into the driver’s seat and he has made crucial mistakes and had child-like moods. As the disease takes its slow, steady and brutal toll on his life, I have witnessed someone who I have limitless admiration and respect for, become scared and helpless. For many people, my granddad included, dementia is the monster under the bed. For that reason, when I go to visit him, I have one simple objective: to make him laugh. Whether it is about something silly he’s done, something silly I’ve done, a joke I read online or a scathing comment about Boris Johnson, I am determined to hear the roar of his laugh as often as I can.

You either laugh or you cry‘, I sigh to my mum as she tells me about how granddad accidentally wore his pyjamas under his suit that day. ‘You either laugh or you cry‘, I say as we discover that granddad has been scrawling “number 6” all over number nines wheelie bin, claiming it as his own despite having one at the top of his driveway. Any moment with my granddad is precious and I want to spend lots of our remaining ones laughing, whether it be about how he blew up another pot of honey in the microwave or the beautiful story about how he met my granny.

He may not always remember my name, but for now at least, his face still glows with love and recognition when he sees me. And honestly, that’s enough. Dementia is utterly devastating, and I by no means aim to trivialise it. However, I’m a strong believer in finding the needle of good in the haystack of bad, and choosing to laugh rather than cry.

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