Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Into the Void


photo Stanislas Toma, Prague 1982

I had a friend.

My friend's body is still here, but Joan is no longer with us. Alzheimer's disease took her away from me.

Years ago Joan's once brilliant brain began to shut down, gradually losing the ability to perform the most basic tasks; she gradually forgot the names of her friends, gradually she stopped to recognize us.

The BBC had a small news item yesterday, towards the end of the news, about a group of scientists calling for a three-fold increase in funding into research into dementia in the UK, urging the government to end years of underfunding for research into the debilitating disease.

Anyone can develop dementia.

Seven hundred thousand people in the UK now live with dementia, and the figure is going up fast. It is estimated that the cost of treating and caring for people with dementia is £17bn a
year - more than the cost of heart disease, stroke and cancer combined.

When we first moved here Joan was the first person to take me under her wing. I was taking a bag of household rubbish to the bin at the end of the drive, by the road, and this bright little lady, with a collie on a lead in tow, came towards me, waving her walking stick at me and hailing me. As we stood chatting, she pointed her stick at the sky above us; she had noticed a buzzard circling and so started this townie's introduction into the wonders of life in the countryside.

Joan and I became friends.

Her illness manifested itself in small ways at first, hardly noticeable. She forgot things, words mostly; but we all do that as we get older. It's what we call "having a senior moment". Only Joan's senior moments became more and more frequent until there was no question that she was suffering from the onset of dementia.

Joan loved music. She still came to visit me occasionally and, on one occasion, before she had fully succumbed to the disease, when she still had a lucid moment or two, we decided to listen to Schubert's two cello Quintett Opus 163, a sublime piece of music. We sat side by side on the sofa, both silent, both listening intently. During the Adagio I happened to look across at her, wanting to share the moment, and saw that tears were running down her cheeks, unchecked.
On impulse, I took her hand in mine; she turned to me; the pain and despair in her eyes were so great that I too felt the tears starting up; the moment was almost unbearably poignant. This was the last time our spirits connected.

I learned today that Joan has now "forgotten" how to walk, her doctor's words. not mine.
The void has truly claimed her.


  1. This is such a moving tribute to your friend Joan, and also a reminder to all of us who know, or have known friends and family who have had Alsheimer's knock at their door.

    In my own family, two cousins of my mother's generation, twin sisters, felt that knock. Somehow, I was even more sympathetic to the sister who saw her twin slip before her own symptoms were apparent.

    Let me lighten this a bit. I'm not so young myself, and try to keep my mind totally occupied and exercized daily. Figure that with the current global economy, I will need to work much longer than I'd planned, and to be up for that job.

    It is wonderful to get to know you better, and to trade these comments with you.

  2. Indeed, Alzheimer's is heart-breaking - mostly I think for those who have to stand by and watch it happening. We have a friend who has 'lost' his father to this dreadful disease and know others whose nearest and dearest are similarly succumbing. Our friend has done his grieving for the loss, so it is now more bearable for him than it was - your own father not even recognising you anymore. So dreadful too, the loss of intelligent, lively minds, movers and shakers, people who were held in high regard who are reduced to the indignity of dementia.

    As Frances said, your post was very moving - especially that shared moment of the magic of music and its ability to join two souls.

    I feel for you.

  3. How touching and tender. What a tribute to Joan and to the connection and friendship you experienced together. Thank you for sharing that. My mother died recently with lucid moments few and far between - so unlike the vibrant, intelligent woman she had been.

  4. Good morning Friko,
    being a bit lost of words, would just like to say that I read what you wrote and am (once again) impressed and glad to have found your site - also it provided me with hope that at least one remembers your words.
    (yes, probably have forgotten to sleep once again, looooong story waiting to be told)

  5. What a powerful tribute to your friend, Friko! I think that would be so hard for those on watching the dementia develop in their loved ones, watching them disappear. Music is so powerful and I am glad you had a deep moment of connection! Hugs, Silke

  6. Good morning Friko

    as we get older we are going to encounter more and more friends and family members with dementia. Your story is touching and familiar to many of us.
    A recent study shows caffeine to be beneficial to the brain cells and Alzheimers- now I can drink without the guilt...but if I could only stop the palpitations and the heartburn...

    Happy days

  7. Is there anyone who hasn't been touched by this terrible thief of a disease? Those who know it's coming, those who are left behind with the memories and the caring, and the waiting.
    I think that funding for research is scarce because those affected are either incapable of lobbying or (the carers) too busy, harried, exhausted to lobby for an increas.
    This was a a very poignant post, Friko - thank you.

  8. That was just beautiful. Tears running down my face here. You brought back the memories of my own Mother's last few years and how her deterioration could be measured with her embroidery. This was something we had used as a sort of occupational therapy. We used to buy pre-printed tray cloths for her to sew and over the 9 years she outlived Dad you could see how the 'finish' just disappeared. Colours didn't match and stitches became very haphazard. Very sad to watch.

  9. Does this illness seem more prevalent now that people live so much longer and it's later stages become obvious? I don't know - but it's certainly a terrible thief of life, stripping a body of its dignity leaving only a shell.

    We too have a friend like this. We visit naively anticipating 'normal' but discover that he has further deteriorated. He is cared for by his 80 year old wife who must be exhausted, poor soul.

  10. All of you appear to understand what Alzheimer's can do, the cruelty of it.
    There is little for me to add, except to say thank you to all of you for your comments. I had been a little dubious about posting this, but I can see now, that I didn't need to be.
    Thank you again.

  11. I am so sorry to hear about your friend. Alzheimer's is a most terrible affliction.

  12. This is a wonderful, beautifully written post about something so hard which touches most of us in some way. A sad tribute to your friend. I think we all fear Alzheimers too, for our families and for ourselves.

  13. Heartrending, Friko. You were very strong to write such a straightforward and moving account. You know, we all should be getting testd for it now, when there's still time to ward it off with medicine.

  14. What a poignant post about your friend. Alzheimer is such a dreadful disease and we are all afraid of it. My father in law had this illness for over 10 years, so my husband is very sensitive to anything he forgets – he is truly afraid – and so am I. I just don’t want to think about it because, what can one do?

  15. Dementia is one of the great fears of the elderly. I am so conscious of every forgotten word and it preys on my mind at times. Alzheimer's robs you of your dignity and self and is so terrible for the care givers.

    I find your post beautifully written and, as others have said, a lovely tribute to your friend.

  16. I "found" your blog through 20th century woman. And I am so glad I did, as you write beautifully and go straight to what counts and your tribute to Jane was very poignant. I also felt tears reading your description of the moment shared listening to Schubert's 2 cello quintet. Music does that to me too. When I listen to Pablo Casal playing Bach's suites for cello I go straight to heaven.
    I live in Spain but am in Portugal for the summer. If you feel like it come see my part of the world.
    I started my blog about a month ago, so I am still learning.

  17. Agonising to read, Friko, but how much more agonising for you to lose your friend even as you sit with her physical self. I think all of us dread this disease and hope for a cure.

  18. again, as I said earlier, I am so grateful for all of these kind and compassionate comments. Alzheimer's is the scourge of today and we are all afraid of it.
    Thank you.

  19. We spent time with my elderly friend yesterday She too is lost in the fog of dementia. Your blog was so familiar to us. My consolation is that we had lots of good times whilst she was able to appreciate and enjoy our friendship. Now, just to hold her hand and share a bar of her favourite chocolate is about all we can do but I have treasured memories of the very special lady that she is. Lets hope they think its worthwhile to spend money on discovering a cure.

  20. Twiglet - Wipso told me that you also had a similar experience with your mother. And still you (and I) go on helping others in that situation, always hoping that it will not hit us.

  21. So sad but so sensitively written Friko.

  22. Tributes like these help us remember those we love. Only last week I lost a good friend to this disease.

    Lovely Blog. Thank you.


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