King Lear is one of the greatest portrayals of ageing in Western literature. It explores the sense of uncertainty that can result from retirement, and the role-reversal that often comes with ageing, as the children become the parents. Throughout the play, Lear’s behaviour is changeable. At times he grows irrationally angry, while at others he appears like a vulnerable child. Some people have suggested that Lear might actually be suffering from a form of dementia; others, however, are sceptical of the diagnosis.
And it’s estimated that one in three of us will have dementia by the time we die at the end of life. Whilst one always thinks of dementia as causing memory loss and of course, memory loss is the most obvious symptom in many ways, it causes this degeneration of this area of the brain, the cerebral cortex which is responsible, not just for memory, but for also for sort of processing information, for using language and thought and reasoning. I mean, if there’s one area where our sort of consciousness resides, in other words, our sense of being of who we are, it’s in this area of the brain, the cerebral cortex, which gets destroyed and dies in dementia.
In the early stages, you get very significant fluctuations. And you get fluctuations not just in people’s degree of confusion but also in their mood and their behaviour and the way that they act and the way that they are. And sometimes, this can have very clear physical causes.
And connecting is incredibly, incredibly important, and the tragedy of dementia is that, for many years, when people got agitated and anxious and confused, we just gave them drugs to sort of sedate areas of the brain. I think how mad is that?
You’ve got a condition whereby part of the brain is shutting down, and then you’re sort of treating it by sort of shutting down the one part of the brain which is still active. Active. Instead of engaging with them.
There’s been some fascinating research done showing that being in a calm, relaxing environment is fundamentally important. Being socially stimulated with other people is fundamentally important. Cognitive or mental stimulation really works.
Just what is a loved one with dementia going through?
A 12-minute virtual Alzheimer’s tour reveals more than you ever imagined.