This is the first in what we hope will be a series of short essays and articles by supporters and readers of this site, exploring in different ways the experience of living with and caring for family members with dementia. It will try to take a positive approach to understanding and appreciating these challenges, in keeping with the KINDA ethos of moving towards a society that does not stigmatise dementia and treats the condition with humanity and compassion. Readers are invited to contact KINDA (via the Contact page) if they have ideas for Our Stories and would like to contribute. All material will be presented anonymously unless specifically requested by the writer.
When Mum started to move away from home into dementia it was a slow but steady progression onto an ocean of inexplicable behaviour, familiar behaviour, wants and needs that sometimes seemed meaningful but at other times not, conversations that could be both surreal and mundane and always a journey that we could not share. Except that in a strange way someone did, and still does.
To go into unfamiliar territory can be daunting at the best of times and to have with one a reminder of where one was, is like carrying a talisman of security. How much more difficult when the journey is involuntary and in many ways not understood as it progresses. And yet, holding onto that reminder has the same purpose and can be just as helpful.
I’m not sure I can clearly remember when I first saw the small and rather ordinary stuffed toy sitting on one of the armchairs in her apartment. Nor can I remember if it was a present from family or something she picked up in the course of what at the time was quite an active life. He was just there, an inscrutable and unremarkable presence because bears after all are the companions of more people than one could imagine. From early days onwards these furry friends are the ‘beloved’ toys, the inseparable ‘companions’, the icon of childhood. Being so much part of the furniture, and remembering my part in a long-standing collection of cuddly toys, it didn’t seem odd that an elderly lady should have this little fellow in attendance.
As her memory problems escalated and conversations started to become peppered by lengthy periods of silence while she searched for the right words, I began to notice that the bear was more often than not sitting beside her, still without a name other than the inevitable ‘Teddy.’ She was also inclined to include him in conversation with the odd, ‘..isn’t that right, Teddy.’ or ‘..what do you think?’ Never as if she seriously expected him to join in and express an opinion, just as a kind of aside in the course of discussing, or trying to discuss, the matter of the moment.
It wasn’t until quite recently that I actually thought a bit more about why Mum had taken a small bear into her orbit rather than any of the other artifacts that surrounded her after a long, eventful and very interesting life. She had on her wall in her apartment some old watercolours of small intimate landscapes, by an aunt whom I had never met. Mostly they were places that either no longer existed or were vastly changed by the passing years. She loved the images both for their association with family and as a window into a lost past. Most interestingly she couldn’t remember at that time – memory loss and confusion were already quite apparent – exactly when the paintings had been produced, but she did remember with great precision the actual locations which were alive and vividly present in her mind.
I never thought at the time to ask her if she’d had a bear as a child and if so what it might be like. As I’m in the process now of digitising photographs from the family past it may be that I’ll discover something really interesting about her and bears from her childhood. Or not. Sadly, it’s too late to try asking questions now. The bear is still an inseparable companion and her connection with it very strong, but to elicit a clear explanation is beyond our power.
If the bear is just a convenient and recognisable anchor in a sea of mystery then I can only be happy for her. If her mind, traveling without maps so far away, takes a small bear’s presence as a reminder of a past she can no longer remember then it has a value well beyond his unremarkable little face. If it makes it seem that she’s not so distant after all then that, and I think similar stories from other people, is a good thing and a comfort to those watching from the distant shore.