A memoir of someone with dementia will describe a person, and a wider family, and the memories that are lost. Where Memories Go certainly does that, and what a person, what a family, and what memories. Mamie Magnusson came from a working class Glaswegian background, made a glamorous and talented way through Scottish journalism, and married the patrician Magnus Magnusson. She carried on writing while raising a family and supporting Magnus in his media and writing career. And then in her older years she experienced the confusing losses of dementia. Her eldest daughter Sally has written a wonderful memoir of her mother that is at once touching, and at the same time also carrying a biting note of anger at the lack of investment in dementia care.
The personal recollections and reconstruction of the family history are successfully woven into the account of Mamie’s dementia. Those family events and names are the disappearing elements of Mamie’s mind. Sally’s younger brother Siggy was tragically killed in a road accident when he was eleven, but for family reasons her mother was not free to mourn his death as she needed to. This event is suddenly recalled late on in the dementia’s progression, and Mamie recovers with many tears, a profoundly felt but long-buried memory. For it would appear that dementia can destroy the circuits that hide memories as well as memories themselves. The effects of dementia are upsettingly apparent when she appears cold and uncaring when other family members go through terminal illness. A daughter-in-law, and then Magnus himself, die of cancer. Both of these events are registered but apparently without much emotional response – a big contrast to the old Mamie.
Along the way Mamie had a spell in a London acute hospital with a broken hip, and Sally marvelled at the unimaginative attitudes of NHS staff to people with dementia and their relatives. Her eyes were opened to the prejudice and incompetence that greets such people, even within the institutions that should be most sensitive to them. Neighbours told her horror stories about how people with dementia are treated in care homes. In search of better alternatives Sally visited speciality wards in Wolverhampton, and dementia specialists in Scotland and the USA. Not that it made much difference to Mamie’s care, which took place in her own home at the hands of family members and paid carers, and with the inevitable – and not always infallible – home-made staffing rota.
The loss of language is a key aspect of dementia. Mamie was a wordsmith as a journalist, and perhaps this explains her on-going ability to do crosswords and make puns, even after she no longer had the motivation or planning to get dressed or take off her pants to go to the toilet. Or perhaps this survival of verbal skills later than motor planning show how dementia varies in its progression. When grandchildren are asked to provide music to make her spirits soar, she is quick to ask if that is S-O-A-R or S-O-R-E, and yet she is unable to put her socks on.
Sally does not omit the ways in which dementia changes her mother’s behaviour for the worse. In particular Mamie becomes very cutting and hurtful towards her twin sister Anna who lives with her, and who does not have dementia. To Sally her mother admits that it is because she is jealous, and she is angry about what she has lost.
Sally observes her mother’s decline with a journalist’s eye and a daughter’s feel, a combination that is unflinching at one moment, and scarcely able to look the next. She sees the profound effects that the songs of Mamie’s youth can have upon her moods, even when she is most confused and tired. This prompts visits to research centres and charities in New York, which are investigating the effects of music with personal resonances in the care of people with Alzheimer’s disease. As a party-going singer with a vast repertoire of Scottish and popular songs, Mamie has a great treasure for the daughters to mine. They cast their minds back to their childhoods and the songs their mother sang to them. And to find the songs that will smooth her, and help her to find herself again. The musical sense and hearing seems to be the last to be destroyed by Alzheimer’s, and it is interesting to hear of Mamie’s ability to use language in song, even as her use of the spoken word was disappearing.
This is a hard-hitting book with plenty to say about the distressing aspects of dementia, and how we need to wake up to the challenges it presents. But there is also a daughter’s tenderness. At the end Mamie became reconciled to her twin Anna, and retained, Sally feels, the essence of herself even in the last few weeks before she died, responding to a grandson on the phone, and calming down when sung to.
Magnusson, Sally (2014) Where Memories Go – why dementia changes everything, London, Two Roads/ Hodder & Stoughton
Audiobook narrated by Sally Magnusson is available: