Once, he spoke at a church service in my parish. A brilliant exploration of the interaction of religion and science. Long after his retirement, he was still in demand as an authority in his field.
Then piece by piece, his memory started to crumble. The conversations he once would have enjoyed became too difficult.
One cannot imagine his experience, it is a place from which no-one has returned. The nearest analogy I could imagine was prompted by a picture a friend once posted online.
The picture seemed to stir memories, but they were memories that were disjointed. They were memories that followed no sequence. To be honest they weren’t even memories, more just disconnected images. There was an image of a blue and white jug on my grandmother’s table. There was an image of blue mugs outside a shop in a seaside town.
The images would not sharpen; nor would they connect. Why were memories triggered by the picture?
Google had provided an answer. With search terms no more precise than ‘blue and white pottery mug’, the links formed a chain that led to Devon Blue Ware. It was pottery from the county where we had spent our holidays each year. It was pottery that graced not only Devon, but many other seaside towns in the 1950s and 1960s.
But what if there had not been the Google option? The images would have remained unconnected. They would have been things at the edge of consciousness that would not take on any meaning. No matter how hard I had concentrated, I would not have found the explanation.
Having visited people with dementia on a regular basis, it seems to be the connections that become lost, the chains become unlinked.
There was a lady who would describe school days, but who would become frustrated when what it was she had set out to say seemed to drift out of reach. She would laugh and wave her hand.
Not everyone is able to cope in such a way; sometimes there are tears, sometimes there is anger. One man who had been a church organist would sit down at the piano in the drawing room of the nursing home. He would play a few bars and then stop. He would play the bars again, and then stop. Perhaps he would try a third time, but the piece he sought would elude him. The piano lid would be closed with a bang.
‘Ian, there is a terrible rippling in my head’, said one lady, ‘and I cannot cope with it’.
There is a sense of helplessness in sitting and watching, unable to do anything to change anything.
Imagine having memory after memory and image after image and never being able to connect them, ever. It is a frightening prospect.