Me, my friend Pru, and our memories

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Media captionJoan Bakewell interviews Prunella Scales and Timothy West

With old age comes the increasing likelihood of memory loss. But when should we worry, asks Joan Bakewell.

Getting old just happens of course. It creeps up on you when you aren't looking and suddenly you're forgetting names and losing keys. At once alarm bells ring - could this be the first indication of dementia?

I am in my 80s now and I would be foolish not to consider whether these irritating incidents are more than simple forgetfulness. I console myself - wasn't I always forgetful, without taking it as a sign of something significant?

When I mentioned the problem to my novelist friend Malcolm Bradbury, he sympathised. "But Joan, you and I have stuffed our brains full throughout our lives, we shouldn't be surprised if some of it begins to fall off the shelf." I felt better, and carried on being randomly forgetful.

But now the argument has quickened. Dementia is growing in its impact as we all live longer lives. It's reckoned there are more than 800,000 sufferers in the UK. When and how will I know if I am one of them?

It's estimated 61% of people worry that they may be afflicted in the future - that number rises to 66% for the over 55s. At least I am not alone. Indeed I am among friends.

I have known the actors Timothy West and his wife Prunella Scales for four decades. If we aren't exactly in and out of each other's houses, we certainly go to each other's parties, exchange Christmas cards and rejoice in the successes of children and, more recently, grandchildren.

Over the past year they together have decided to go public on the fact that Pru has dementia.

It first began with lines. Pru has had a distinguished career for over 50 years. She has starred in some of television's most popular series: Marriage Lines, opposite Richard Briers, After Henry, Mapp and Lucia, and of course, as Sybil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. About 15 years ago she began to notice it was getting harder to remember lines. She put it down to age.

Her last stage appearance was five years ago in Carrie's War in the West End. Of course, work continues with voiceovers which she can still handle with her usual flair and aplomb. But their doctor indicated that her condition would get worse. It is getting worse, but only slowly.

I enter their home exactly as I know it, full of welcome and laughter, cups of tea and theatre gossip. But there are differences - a huge whiteboard in the kitchen lists in order the things Pru will be doing that day. A trained helper, Meegan, familiar with the progression of dementia, has moved in to live with them. She goes about her caring with a tactful absence of fuss.

We sit and talk about the how much their lives are affected and it becomes clear there are two narratives here. Pru complains of occasionally forgetting things - "but then I am 82 years old - surely that's allowed".

But she is shocked when Tim explains how at a party Pru will tell someone the same anecdote time after time. "Oh, I don't do that do I? Surely not. Oh how dreadful." I hear in her outrage the familiar response of the Pru I know. But her response is characteristic of the denial which is common among dementia sufferers.

What is dementia?

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Computer graphic of an Alzheimer patient's brain (left) compared with a normal brain (right)
  • An umbrella term referring to a collection of symptoms, which may include memory loss and difficulties with problem-solving or language
  • Progressive condition caused by brain disease, currently without cure
  • Alzheimer's disease affects 62% of those living with dementia
  • About 800,000 people formally diagnosed with dementia in UK - but only 43% with the condition get a diagnosis
  • Approximately one in 20 people over age 65 have it, rising to one in six by the age of 80. One in three in the UK will have it by the time they die

Source: Alzheimer's society, BBC Science

The fact is dementia is changing her and their lives together, but as in the best of marriages it is a shift rather than a catastrophe. Tim clearly feels the loss - when they go out for the evening together they both enjoy the event, but once back home Pru can't talk about it because it has already slipped from her memory.

I leave for home reflecting on how several friends of my generation are now drifting into this unknown world. I wonder about my own forgetfulness and decide it is, so far as I can tell, of a quite different order. Nonetheless it is evident enough for me to take small avoiding steps - sticky notes left around the house, a notepad beside the bed, a list of things to do each day.

But then didn't I do that already when the overload of my busy life threatened to engulf me? I have been a journalist for over 40 years, working in different media and keeping tabs on what I do through well-ordered and sometime scruffy diaries, shelves of files and dependence on the support of agents and editors. The agents and editors might well say their support has got stronger in recent months. I happily take for granted their loyalty and friendship. A network of obligations that keeps me busy and committed is keeping me on track. If dementia looms, I simply haven't time to notice.

Nonetheless what I've been learning about early intervention, the memory clinics, the ongoing research, is enough to persuade me that staying alert for symptoms and confronting fears early is the best way to grow old. I know I shall be taking those memory tests one day soon.

The UK is only now gearing up to meet the enormous challenge dementia presents for the future. There will always be a struggle for resources and new skills. If individuals can help with their own diagnoses, rather than hide away from bad news, then that will help.

There's no denying the harrowing experience of families whose members no longer know who they are. But my friends Tim and Pru have shown me that there can still sometimes be happiness and laughter to be got out of life.

The Magazine on dementia

Image copyright Alamy

Broadcaster Fiona Phillips reflects on the difficult decisions she faced when both parents were diagnosed with dementia.

With an ageing population, a wave of dementia is approaching. Caring for those afflicted isn't easy, writes Louis Theroux.

Listen to Suppose I Lose It on BBC Radio 4 on 16 December at 20:00 GMT or catch up afterwards on iPlayer.

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