The strangers living among us

Paul Hopkins – Talking the Talk

OVER the course of – what was it? – weeks, months, perhaps only days, a stranger came to live among us. He looked familiar, like someone I had once known and, yet, it was not he. He did not appear to know me. Not a flicker of recognition. His eyes vacant, his stare unnerving, his overall countenance a shadow of what used to be.

Well, of course it was he. Once the life and soul of the party, a decent hard-working man whose generosity was boundless, whose company was convivial, who liked his pint and who did not suffer fools easy, and would not be short of telling you to get off your horse and drink your milk.Now, all those familiar traits and idiosyncrasies were lost, somewhere in the dark recesses of his brain.

Gerry, grandfather to my children. Then 64. At 72, catatonic, unknowing and unknowable, he died of septicemia, bed-bound due to his lack of mobility. It was, in effect, a long goodbye.     

The first time I noticed a stranger among us must have been about 30 years ago when we knew little of such matters. That stranger reminded me of a woman I had once known.

Her name was Dorothy, or, affectionately, Dor, a tall, graceful, elegant, dark-skinned woman who cut a glamorous look fashion-wise, her body forever adorned with jewels of all carats and design.

But the stranger only looked like Dor, like Gerry a shadow of her former self. And, anyways, this stranger, in her last days on this earth, was aggressive and abusive, with foul expletives tripping continuously off her tongue.

Like Dor, the stranger who came among us about the time that Dessie started to disappear was extremely forgetful, a once strong, articulate and eloquent man who now needed constant minding, increasingly doing things out of character and often a danger to himself. Incidents frequently tinged with comedic outcomes that proved embarrassing predicament when out in public among those who would have no inkling of his predicament.

There are few of us on this island who do not know of someone like Gerry and Dor and Dessie who one day disappeared only to be replaced by a stranger. Alzheimer’s and related dementia now affects some 38,000 people in Ireland but, due to our rapidly ageing population, that number is predicted to rise to 58,000 by 2021 and 104,000 by 2036.

Better nutrition and living conditions and advances in medicine and technology means we are all living longer but so often that longevity comes with a price, the price of being struck down by an ailment that medicine has yet to adequately define and eliminate.

The month of May sees days and weeks being set aside for various events, fund-raising and other, to bring more awareness to us of the rapidly increasing number of strangers living among us.

While rates have declined for most major diseases including heart disease and stroke in the last five years, Alzheimer’s deaths have increased by 33%.

With the current cost of Alzheimer’s care in Ireland at €400 million a year and 50,000 people looking after someone with at least one of the six specified symptoms of dementia, the social and economic implications of this disease are hugely significant, according to Prof. Eamon O’ Shea, director of the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology (ICSG) based at Galway NUI.

“It is time to recognise dementia as a major health issue and make it a national  priority,” he says.

Those, increasingly, becoming strangers among us. Those we love dearly and hold close to our hearts, though they no longer are capable of knowing it.