Strangers in the plight that robs us of ourselves



Over the course of – what was it? – weeks, months, perhaps only days, a stranger came to live among us.

He looked familiar, like someone I had once known and, yet, it was not he. He did not appear to recognise me. Not a flicker. His eyes vacant, his stare unnerving, his overall countenance a shadow of what used to be.

Well, of course it was he. Once the life and soul of the party, a decent hard-working man whose generosity was boundless, whose company was convivial, who liked his pint and who did not suffer fools easy, and would not be short of telling you to get off your horse and drink your milk.

Now, all those familiar traits and idiosyncrasies were lost, somewhere in the dark recesses of his brain.

Gerry, grandfather to my three children. Then 64. At 72, catatonic, unknowing and unknowable, he died of septicemia, bed-bound due to his lack of mobility. It was, in effect, a long goodbye.

The first time I noticed a stranger among us must have been about 40 plus years ago when we knew little of such matters. That stranger reminded me of a woman I had once known. Her name was Dorothy, or, affectionately, Dor, a tall, graceful, elegant, dark-skinned woman who cut a glamorous look fashion-wise, her body forever adorned with jewels of all carats and designs.

But the stranger only looked like Dor; like Gerry, a shadow of her former self. And, anyway, this stranger in her last days on this earth was aggressive and abusive, with foul expletives tripping continuously off her tongue.

Like Dor, the stranger who came among us about the time that Dessie started to disappear was extremely forgetful, a once strong, articulate and eloquent man who now needed constant minding, increasingly doing things out of character and often a danger to himself.

Incidents frequently tinged with comedic outcomes that proved embarrassing predicament when out in public among those who would have no inkling of his predicament.

His daughter, my friend, along with her ageing mother and adult siblings, looked after that stranger for six years, even down to his personal toilet.

Eventually he, now too unknowing change.

and living and unknowable, lost his ability to swallow and died of starvation.

Both here and in the UK implications of this disease are hugely significant, according to Prof Eamon O’ Shea, director of the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology (ICSG) at the NUI Galway.

“More than 25% of carers are themselves elderly, while 70% experience financial strain and two-thirds find the job of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s completely overwhelming at times,” Prof O’Shea says.

“It is time to recognise dementia as a major public health issue and make it a national health priority.”

Alzheimer’s and related dementia now affects some 58,000 people in Ireland but, due to our rapidly ageing population, that number is predicted to rise

104,000 by 2036.

Better nutrition and living conditions and advances in medicine and technology means we are all living longer but so often that longevity comes with a price

– the price of being struck down by an ailment that medicine has yet to adequately define and eliminate.

While rates have declined for most major diseases, including heart disease and stroke, in the last five years, Alzheimer’s deaths have increased by 33%.

Prof Brian Lawlor, consultant psychiatrist for the elderly at Dublin’s St Patrick’s and St James’s Hospitals, says that, unless awareness of the disease is increased and the State funds research and innovation on cause, care and cure, Alzheimer’s will cause a major health crisis in the coming decades.

PAUL HOPKINS is the author of Affairs Of The Heart (And Other Writings), new from Monument Media Press, priced €14.99, described as a collection of stories to warm the emotions and light the soul. Available at select bookstores and from


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