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Matter Over Mind - My Grandad’s Dementia

My grandad died not so long ago. No, don’t go sending flowers. He had a good innings, a full life and a loving family – all the things that, if we’re honest, are really on our bucket lists; not all those stunts that earn likes on Instagram, like posing in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa as though you’re the only thing holding it up, or splashing about with dolphins as though you’re dunking your kids at the local leisure centre. Yes, my grandad had a good life, but I’m afraid the end was rather less pleasant.

Stuck in a home, he was confused and suffered dementia – a common condition in the elderly, but not one that I had personally encountered before. If you haven’t ever dealt with it, it’s surreal. You talk to someone in a relatively normal way, and then they ask you the exact same question they asked just a minute before. It’s as though their brain has just malfunctioned.

Seeing a loved one like this is obviously very sad. But it’s also just plain difficult to get your head around. As much of a philosophical challenge as an emotional one, you ask yourself questions like – how can a person just “go wrong” like that? How can a human being’s personality simply stop working? How can an issue with the physical side of someone result in the loss of something like their sense of humour? It’s a far cry from the usual sorts of age-related problems. When the hearing starts to go, you can just speak louder and then get them a hearing aid. It can even be quite funny. “…He said how much money?” No, I said, it can even be quite funny. And when the eyes start to weaken, stronger and stronger glasses come in, with operations possible further down the line. Even the heart can be tinkered with these days, like a beaten-up old car engine getting a new part. But a brain…? That’s another matter. 

In a recent interview, Ricky Gervais joked that he’d be quite happy to have his brain transferred to another head, if technology ever allowed for such transplants. He explained that he’d simply abandon his ageing body and go on living in a different one. It might be an odd concept, but what he’s getting at is right – the body is pretty much the vehicle for getting us around, whereas the brain is our essence. Scientists may speak in terms of cerebral cortexes and amygdalas and synapses, but the brain isn’t merely another organ, is it? The brain is, in fact, our whole personality.

As my grandfather’s brain deteriorated then, it meant that the thing that made him who he was also deteriorated. He became a bit like the computer that says no – information simply could not be properly communicated or retained, no matter how clearly you enunciated or how many times you said something. It was like a farce, with all the humour bitterly left out. 

Thankfully, this phase didn’t last long. When my grandfather shuffled off this mortal coil after more than ninety years of life, it was the end of suffering and the beginning of peace. But what won’t ever leave are the memories of his last months. They serve as a potent reminder that, putting the emotional part aside, life can simply be a very puzzling business. It’s a business in which we are faced with profound questions, the answers to which cannot be found simply by getting out your phone and asking Google. 

This should be obvious, but so often today we seem to think that technology is the be-all-and-end-all. From TED talks by dubious “gurus” to people obsessing over the latest iPhone and clamouring for the newest apps, there’s a certain naivety going around now: a worldview in which tech is everything and classic novels, culture and deep reflection are deemed meaningless. My grandfather was the sort of man who would give the TV a good thump if it was on the blink. For his generation, technology had its place, but it also knew its place. I hope that we can all keep something of this balance as we move into the future, and remember that using technology is only a small part of the human condition. There are more things in heaven and earth, Siri, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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