I often feel privaledged to have lived in two centuries, my grandmother or ‘nana’ as she was always known lived through three. Two world wars the invention of the television, and landing a man on the moon were just a few of the moments of history she witnessed. Born two years before Queen Victoria died in many ways she remained a lady of victorian principles. Starting life in the infamous Beaconsfield Buildings in Islington, that were constructed by the Victoria Dwellings Association to provide healthy and comfortable dwellings for the labouring classes. The 1911 census shows her at age 11 living at 8F Beaconsfield Buildings with nine others in a flat that only had three rooms.
My first memory is visiting the house she occuppied with my grandad Ted in Wood Green North London early in the 1960’s. After Ted had travelled around the country as a jobbing electrician taking his family with him. According to family legend at one stage he worked with the team that split the atom. Quite how much truth there was in that I have never found out, the only thing I know is grandads Christmas lights were always attached to the wall socket courtesy of bare wires and strategically placed match sticks. By the time they moved to Perth Road in 1950 they had two children in tow. My Mum who was born in 1928 and my uncle Edward who was 13 at the time. Edward was born with both mental and physical disabilities suffering numerous epileptic attacks which led the National Neurological Hospital to declare they would be surprised if he saw out his teens. In effect he defied the doctors, passing away in 2008 at the age of 71.
Nana was a tough lady after grandad Ted died suddenly in 1971 she dedicated the rest of her life to caring for her son well into her 90’s. That involved cooking, washing, dressing, and attending to Uncle Edward’s every need. As time began to catch up with her she reluctantly accepted carers but on most occasions they would sit with a cup of tea while she continued the routine she’d started over half a century ago. She wasn’t an easy woman to get on with and there’s no doubt that there were some complicted politics within the family. On one occasion a man called Uncle Bill turned up to stay a few nights Nana making it perfectly clear when he was out of earshot he was bad news and we shouldn’t have anything to do with him.
Aunt Daise was Nana’s younger sister in fact when the two were 96 and 91 respectively the older sister still refered to her younger sibling as ‘that stupid young girl.’ Daisy was in the habit of staying at Perth Road every so often and it was after one of those visits that we began to have our suspicions that things weren’t quite right. “She’s not coming back as she’s stealing my stuff,” said Nana accusing her younger sister of removing certain household items. Eccentric to a tee, kind, generous with a personality that would think it her duty to give you her last shilling Aunt Daise was definitely not a thief. It transpired she’d left Wood Green in tears after being on the wrong end of her elder sisters tongue. Sadly the two were never really reconciled after that.
To be honest after that the word dementia wasn’t used Dad’s way of explaining was ‘I think your Nana’s going a bit funny.’ After that first incident what I then saw though was the slow decline I now know as typical of Alzheimer’s. That said she still soldiered on in the house for a couple of years and had a habit of turning it on for the crowd when Social Services turned up to carry out an assessment. I can clearly remember one case conference around the living room table when a rather pompous social worker got the full Nana treatment. “Now we are all gathered this afternoon to talk about Mrs Elizabeth Howard one of the elders of the borough,” only to be interupted by Nana shouting, “Oy I’m not a bleedin elder I’m an old age pensioner!” At Age 98 it finally became time for her to be moved from the house she’d occupied for 47 years I’d like to say it was a dignified ending as she shed a tear and closed the door for the last time but in reality she went after the emergency services had to break in for the final time.
Her remaining three years were spent in a lovely small residential home in Bounds Green where despite her often violent outbursts they treated her like family. On more than one occasion I arrived to be informed “your Nan is in her room and she’s in one of those moods.” Usually that meant somehow she’d managed to dress herself in her hat and coat from her wheelchair and was sitting in attack mode with her walking stick threatening anyone who came close. She never failed to recognise who I was and was convinced Dad was having an illicit affair with the woman who ran the home. Once she said to me ” you’re not a proper grandson you never ask me for money.” Deeply distrustful of banks what small amount she had was stashed away under various floorboards as we’d found when we were forced by an unsypathetic council to clear the house in three weeks. That was used to buy her various luxuries she still appreciated including an increasing number of bottles of gin. In fact later on we found that somehow because she’d given up formal work when Edward was born she never had a national insurance number.
As her health declined she payed regular visits to North Middlesex Hospital where on one occasion I found her edging up the ward at a snails pace with her zimmer frame. “Hello Nan where are you going?” I said “I’m going downstairs to see Ted!” she replied. I tried to reassure her that he wasn’t there but she was having none of it. In the end I had to politely inform the ward sister that we needed a bit of assistance as my grandmother was staging an escape bid. By this stage I realised that there was something major going on but in all honesty going back to my experiences at Friern Hospital I believed that most people in their 90’s were likely to behave in the same way.
Nana had one last chance to turn it on for the crowd in August 1999 when she celebrated her 100th birthday. As you can see from the quote above she rose to the occasion. When she finally went to sleep for the last time aged 101 it still didn’t really register that she’d been living with dementia for what must have been five or six years. Fast forward to 2016 and an interview room in Essex when I was asked the question ‘do you have any experience of dementia?’ My reply was ‘well my grandmother went a bit strange when she was about 96 but I guess at that age you are entitled to.’ RIP Nana