This isn’t the first book to be written on dementia, nor will it be the last, but it is an incisive and compelling read. Gerrard, a crime novelist and former journalist, visits the “fresh hell” of hospitals across the UK, and interviews sufferers and those whose lives have been indelibly shaped by the diagnosis of a loved one. She meets men and women who are old but who every day lift their partner out of bed; children who have taken their parents into their homes and have had their lives turned upside down; others caring for parents who never really cared for them.
Gerrard is a novelist as well as a journalist. It is her interest in the human experience of dementia that compelled her to interview, at different stages of their decline and in the full knowledge that she might never be able to enter the mysterious world they are in, dozens of the damned, some of whom – along with their carers – become her friends. Their stories are the heartbeat of the book, and her relentless telling of them tolls like a bell reminding us of our own vulnerability, but also of our common humanity.
Gerrard realised while writing this book that she had originally been motivated by a desire to save her father. But she eventually had to accept that such a quest was fruitless because he was ‘beyond rescue’. Through this moving mixture of philosophy and anecdote, reasoned suggestion and personal anguish, she will surely rescue many others.
This is an intelligent, thoughtful exploration of a cruel disease that — as the population ages — will continue to touch more and more of us in one way or another. I’ve talked of little else to family and friends since reading it and I’m sure that will be mirrored out in the world and that this book will encourage many hard, but necessary conversations and lead us all to question what life and death mean to us in this peculiar time where “it has become easier to live longer and harder to die well”.
Her powerful and beautifully written book takes the reader on a poignant voyage through the stages of the illness, from diagnosis (one person tells her: “I felt cold water running down my spine”) through the terrible later stages that seem “like a ferocious de-creation of the self and an apocalypse of meaning”, to the final days: “Death can be a friend. Enough is enough”...Gerrard raises important questions about how we look after those who have dementia. One in eight adults in the UK is a carer and the toll it takes on their lives is largely unrecognised.