Thursday, 28 April 2016

Book review: Before I Forget, Christine Bryden (2015)

Prior to her diagnosis of early-onset dementia in 1995 at age 46 Christine Bryden lived with an abusive husband for almost 20 years. The dementia advocate has written two other books, which have been published. In this one she tells the story of her life from her childhood until recent times, although the part here that is most coherent is the part up to when she was first diagnosed.

The part of this book that is most compelling is the part that deals with her bad first marriage. You read the book chapter by chapter hoping that the person whose life is being chronicled will stand up to the bully she lives with, say "enough", and get out. And you have this feeling many times as the story proceeds, while the relationship continues its inexorable and brutal course. It is terrible to behold. I don't think I have read another account of an abusive relationship like this anywhere else. Finally, the character called Christine gets the help she needs to get out, but it seems to take forever for this to happen.

Bryden is unusual as a person living with dementia because she has had the diagnosis for so long. In fact, early-onset dementia generally - I am assured by my psychiatrist - is more severe than the more normal type of dementia that comes with old age. Having had the diagnosis for over 20 years, she has to some degree bucked the trend. Continuing to interact meaningfully in society as an active participant sets her apart; most people with dementia end up in nursing homes as they cannot perform the normal tasks required to live in the broader community. Of course Bryden is fortunate in having a husband - Paul, who she meets after leaving her first husband - who helps her in many ways to navigate the world's obstacles. But looking at the subject from a broad perspective you'd have to say that Bryden is not typical in her class.

Regardless, she has a lot of interesting things to teach us. Because my mother has dementia, I bought this book - having heard about it on the radio (I listen to the radio in the car when I drive up to visit mum in the nursing home) - hoping it would give me insights into the disease. As my mother's carer, I have a duty of care to be informed. I also bought the book for mum but it's impossible to know if she has read any of it because of course she forgets what she has done.

Reading the book has been useful because it allows me to understand some of the feelings a person living with dementia feels in their lives. So I can better understand my mother and hopefully care for her with more aplomb. The fact that Bryden does not fit the mould is in the end irrelevant. The universe had to create someone like her in order that a person living with dementia could express themselves in the way she has done, with passion and accuracy. I regard her insights as informative and relevant.

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