I found an old lady.
It’s Dementia Action week (20th – 26th May). About a year ago I was privileged to be able to access Dementia Friendly training via the place that I volunteer. I can’t recommend the training highly enough. It was run by https://www.dementiafriends.org.uk/, and although the intention was to help us in our volunteering role, it also helped me enormously on a personal level.
But I want to tell you about my old lady.
I’d popped out one morning, and when I got back home there was an old lady standing on the pavement just by my house. If I hadn’t done the dementia training, I might not have particularly noticed her. But as I drove past, I saw that she was wearing a thick wool coat, and she was holding a grey bobble hat. It was August – one of the hottest days of the year.
So, I’ve noticed that she’s standing on the pavement, and that there’s something just not quite right. To begin with, I thought she was just trying to cross the road – it can be quite busy.
I made myself a coffee and took it out to drink in the garden (did I mention it was a glorious day?) She was still there. Hmm. What to do. Being British, one doesn’t want to interfere. But then again…
I went to have a chat with her, over the garden fence. She seemed perfectly lucid, at least to begin with – she was on her way to the dentist, but the dentist used to be on this corner and they’ve moved, and now she was waiting for her son to come and give her a lift. So far so good.
Except the dentist has never been on this corner. There is a dentist further down the road – I explained that she hadn’t gone far enough, that she needed to keep going, the dentist is on the next corner, not this one. She sets off. There are some cars parked at the side of the road, and I notice she’s looking into them. I realise she thinks this is the son come to give her a lift.
Somehow or other, she forgets which way she’s meant to be going, and ends up back on ‘my’ corner. Right. Now we really do have a problem. It’s scorching hot, she’s in a big black coat, and she’s been there a good 30 minutes to my certain knowledge – goodness knows how long she’d been there before I got home.
I decided to take action, British or not – I went out and chatted to her, and offered to walk her down to the dentist. She was reluctant to come with me, which was fair enough. She also didn’t want to come into my garden to sit in the shade. I managed to get her into some shade under a tree, next to a wall that she could lean against.
She tells me now that it’s the dentist that’s coming to pick her up. This dentist is also my dentist, and he’s nice – but he’s not that nice! Alarm bells are seriously ringing in my head. I go and fetch her a glass of water and grab my phone while I’m at it. Dial the police non-emergency number (101 in the UK) and explain the problem. I also contacted the dentist, to see if they were missing an old lady. We chatted while we waited. She told me all about her childhood in Eastern Europe, coming to the UK as a refugee during the war. But I notice it’s a very one-sided conversation – she makes perfect sense, but doesn’t answer any of my questions.
Then she tells me, very matter-of-fact, that she heard a voice in her head telling her that the dentist would come to pick her up, and she asked me in all seriousness whether I get these voices too. Yup, made the right call there.
Police car and dentist’s receptionist arrive at the same time. Yes, they were expecting her at the dentist, she was over an hour late for her appointment (which fits with how long she’d probably been standing outside my house). We find out that the son lives in Leicester (a good 3 hours from here), and she’d walked at least a mile from her flat to get to where I found her. And to be fair, she’d very nearly made it to the dentist, just got a bit confused about which corner it was on and stopped too soon. The Police Officer was lovely with her (she was able to tell him her name and her address, and her son’s name, but also asked him if he had voices in his head too…).
The point is, I probably wouldn’t have really noticed her if I hadn’t done the Dementia Friendly training. Or if I’d chatted with her I would have decided everything was OK. The training showed me that someone could be coping perfectly well on one level (she knew she had a dental appointment) but could still be struggling at another level (having gone a bit wrong by confusing which corner the dentist was on, she didn’t know how to sort it out). And it taught me that someone can have a very good memory for things that happened many years ago but still struggle to remember something said to them 5 minutes ago.
She was very excited to get a lift back home in a police car, and a bit non-plussed by all the attention she was getting. Last I heard the son was on his way and the GP was getting involved. Without the training I may very well have decided that she was ‘all right really’ and left her to sort herself out.
So, if something seems a bit odd, be curious. Nosey even. And if ever you get the chance to do Dementia Friendly training, grab it with both hands.
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