What Dementia Teaches Us About Love by Nicci Gerrard
For ten years after Nicci Gerrard’s father, John, was diagnosed with dementia, the writer and crime novelist watched him “gradually disappearing, memories falling away, words going, recognition fading”, said P.D. Smith in The Guardian. While he died at home in 2014, his final decline was precipitated by a period in hospital during which he was separated from his family. Gerrard was so angered by the inadequacy of the treatment that she co-founded a charity, John’s Campaign, to fight for more compassionate hospital care. Now, in this “beautifully written book” – a blend of memoir, journalistic investigation and philosophical enquiry – Gerrard considers dementia in broader terms. The condition affects more than 850,000 people in the UK, and globally it costs more to treat than “cancer, stroke and heart disease combined”. It has become, she suggests, the illness we “fear the most”.
There are sure to be many other books written on dementia, said Helen Davies in The Sunday Times. But few will be as “powerful” as this one. In homes and hospitals across the UK, Gerrard confronts the “hell” into which people are plunged by the disease. “She meets men and women who are old but who every day lift their partner out of bed”; children whose lives have been “turned upside down” by taking parents into their homes; people “caring for parents who never really cared for them”. And yet the story she tells isn’t simply one of unrelieved “horror”, said Cathy Rentzenbrink in The Times. She also meets people who are “living well” with the condition; there are “lovely sections” on the “transformative powers” of the arts. Such moments prevent the reader from “sinking under the misery”.
The book’s real strength lies in its combination of the “intensely personal with the universal”, said Jane O’Grady in the Literary Review. Gerrard’s reflections on dementia lead her to consider death, ageing, memory and identity. If the disease teaches us anything, the author writes, it is that vulnerability and dependence are “necessary conditions of being alive”; to be human is not essentially to be “vigorous and healthy”. And while “individualism” may encourage us to see dementia as a loss of self – and hence as a loss of “any reason to live” – Gerrard’s research leads her to a different conclusion: she believes that within each dementia sufferer, some “indelible essence” of self remains. Her book, as a result, has a partly uplifting message – and will offer comfort to many.