I first met Clara in the day room of a community hospital on a humid afternoon in late summer. Sunlight flooded in through the floor to ceiling windows, as elderly people dotted here and there around the room dozed, mouths agape, heads lolling, curved spines wedged uncomfortably into high backed armchairs, with the unlikely high-volume background soundtrack of Judge Rinder from the TV.
Clara, however, sat alert and upright in a chair in the far corner, awaiting her visitor. I joined her at her table, introduced myself and explained that I had come to talk to her and to listen to her views, wishes and feelings about whether she could return to her own home when she left hospital. She returned my gaze directly, her bright brown eyes in a surprisingly unlined face framed by long, straight grey hair searching my face as I spoke. If I had had to guess her age, I would have placed her at a sprightly eighty or so and yet her notes told me that she was ninety six and had been diagnosed with mixed dementias.
Clara was polite, articulate and keen to talk, but it became apparent very quickly that she could not remember many, if any, details of her life prior to her admission into hospital several weeks earlier. She could also not remember questions I had posed to her less than five minutes after I had asked them. At one stage, I asked her if she had ever been married and initially she shrugged her shoulders saying she did not know, but then lifted her left hand and stared at it intently. She looked in wonderment at the thin gold band embedded into the fourth finger, almost as if someone had just placed it there that moment without her knowledge or consent and announced rather stiffly ‘I appear to be wearing a wedding ring, don’t I, so I suppose I must have been.’
When asked what she felt about the doctors and social workers’ concerns that she would not be able to look after herself properly if she were to return home, she refuted the allegations tartly and told me that she could manage perfectly well. We discussed how she prepared her own meals, fetched her own shopping, washed and dressed herself and did not need to have carers visiting her in her house (none of which was true, according to a long suffering neighbour and the care agency who had been sending carers into her home three times a day prior to her hospital admission). I told her that I would like to come back and see her again the following week and asked if she thought she would remember me when I returned. Clara reached forward and plucked the long strand of beads I was wearing away from my chest, twirled them around her fingers and said thoughtfully ‘I like these. When you come back to see me, wear these…’. I assured her I would and asked her if she thought that it would help her to remember me and what we had talked about if I wore the beads again, to which she smiled slightly and replied only ‘it’s worth a try’. It was worth a try; I did wear them on a return visit the following week but she did not remember me (although she graciously complimented me on a pretty necklace).
On my visits to Clara, when I asked her about returning home, it became clear that, whilst she could not remember her husband or her home of the past fifty years, she could remember the home of her childhood and youth. The world she had known first was the only one still fixed into her disappearing memories. She spoke animatedly about living with her mother and father, who in her world were still alive and in need of her services helping behind the counter in their grocery shop. She told me all about the work her mother did in the house and that she was teaching her how to run her own home. She told me all about her little brother, who was away in the war and from whom they hadn’t heard for a long time. She told me about getting another job too, so she could help out her lovely mum and dad who still worked so hard.
I asked Clara if she knew how old she was. There was a long pause while she fixed her eyes on mine, arched her eyebrows and said ‘about twenty-five? Am I right?’. I told her it was not quite right but that she could be any age she wanted to be on the inside. She then asked me to tell her how old she was, confessing she had guessed at twenty-five because she had no idea, but that was how she felt. However, when I did tell her, she reacted with astonishment and rising horror: ‘ninety SIX? NINETY SIX?’. Thankfully (for me), after a minute or two she had moved on to telling me about her mother again and appeared to have forgotten everything except her desire to return to her days as a young adult living in the family home above the family shop.