This is an extraordinary book. It comes at a time when more of us in middle-age worry more about developing Alzheimers than getting cancer. Cancer, we fell, is treatable, even curable. It’s no longer necessarily a death sentence.
Dementia on the other hand… well, there’s no cure (yet); just a relentless descent into an empty place that terrifies us: not remembering or recognising our dearest loved ones – our spouse, even our children.
So these days Alzheimers is the bogeyman, and tragically it is rife, meaning we all shy away from it and its dread implications. We pity those we call ‘sufferers’. We turn our faces away from the disease and its frightening manifestations – helpless, blank, senile old people condemned to forget their lives ever had purpose, love, and meaning.
And that’s why we need Wendy Mitchell. Wendy has early-onset Alzheimers, diagnosed when she was just 58. Here, she writes lucidly, candidly and forcefully about living with dementia. She won’t tolerate phrases such as ‘dementia sufferers’. Instead she prefers the active-positive term ‘living with’.
Like Julianne Moore in the movie Still Alice, our writer insists she is ‘still Wendy’.
Wendy’s courage, her refusal to go under, the sheer ingenuity with which she tackles her failing memory is not only inspirational, but incredibly helpful, both to those living with dementia and those who love and care for them. She makes it her business to communicate her message, travelling up and down the country, fighting for others with the disease, holding meetings, making speeches.
This is not by any means a depressing book. It’s gallant, determined, and absolutely compelling.
Wendy learns harsh lessons about Alzheimers. She had a good job heading a staff rostering team in a busy Yorkshire hospital. Ironically, her memory and mastery of admin detail was legendary. When she feels she can no longer cope working full-time she asks her managers (senior medical staff, one an eminent psychiatrist) to help her with more flexible hours. To her astonishment and anger they refuse, seeing retirement as Wendy’s only option.
Her journey through Alzheimers is accompanied by wistful memories of the past, during which she refers to her pre-dementia self as ‘you’. She chronicles bringing up her two daughters as a single mother, money always tight, but with an almost insouciant determination she achieved success. She worked hard and was almost superhumanly efficient, decorating her own homes single-handed; no obstacle flummoxed her. And that capability stands Wendy in good stead now as her brain ‘fogs up, full of cotton wool’; she is eventually diagnosed.
She tackles her illness as if it were a difficult game of chess and passes on ingenious tips to help others. She can no longer drive, so she buys a pink bicycle. She doesn’t particularly like pink, but it’s less easy to forget. She uses her pinging Ipad to remind her to take pills; reads poems and short stories when she finds novels impossible to make sense of. And she talks and blogs constantly, telling everyone exactly how it is.
Whether you read Somebody I Used to Know as a guide to dealing with your own dementia or that of a loved one, or simply as a philosophical gem, a ‘testimony to human spirit and ingenuity’ (as one eminent professor of dementia care describes it), Wendy Mitchell’s book is simply magnificent. It is, indeed, an awe-inspiring message for our times.