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Decay and devotion

23 September 2016

David Winter reads a dialogue on dementia with a famous writer

Beloved Old Age and What to Do About it (Margery Allingham’s “The Relay” handed on to Julia Jones)
Julia Jones
Golden Duck £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


SIXTY-SIX years ago, when my grandmother had what we would now call dementia, our family doctor described it as “senile decay”. This made it sound like an inevitable consequence of getting old. This book, despite its title, is not simply about coping with our beloved relatives in old age, but with dementia and Alzheimer’s, which modern medicine defines as diseases, not inevitable accompaniments of old age.

It is not a book of practical advice or domestic testimony, though it includes plenty of both. In fact, it is a fascinating dialogue, linking the 1960s and the present day, between two women writers, Margery Allingham, a noted crime novelist 50 years ago, and her biographer, Julia Jones. Their meeting-point is living and coping with elderly people who have dementia.

Allingham, back in the 1960s, was part of a middle-class family who took on the care of several somewhat eccentric relatives with what would now be diagnosed as dementia. Jones today has a mother who has the same condition.

The contrasts between their experiences are both fascinating and illuminating. Allingham’s book The Relay, which provides one half of the dialogue, saw old age as the passing on of a legacy: memories, commitments, love, and, sometimes, money (hence the title). She assumes that her readers can afford to pay a full-time daily carer (or “chatelaine”, as she quaintly calls her) at the princely sum of £1 a day. The “heir”, assumed to be male, is the manager of the whole operation.

She writes movingly about the human side of all this, but is also ready with plenty of stern advice: “Families should care for their older members at the end of their lives for their own sakes, not as a duty or even out of altruism.” The legacy, she argues, will be the re-absorption of the old people’s experience and values into the family memory. That, of course, was 1964.

In today’s terms, it sounds splendid but hopelessly impractical. In our society, many of those heirs or “legatees” live in small flats, possibly hundreds of miles or even a continent away. Jones writes as a woman of today coping (or sometime not quite coping) with a mother she has loved, but whose needs on bad days she finds overpowering.

In the half-century covered by this book, the NHS has faced a slowly mounting tide of dementia. In 1964, the expectation of life for a woman at birth was 71. Now it is 81 and rising. The impact of that tide on health facilities and on many an individual and home is painfully obvious. Somewhere along the “relay” we’ve dropped the baton.

This is not a “religious” book, though Allingham clearly had a strong faith in a “life-force” of divine nature. Its value for the present-day reader is perspective and humanity. Whether then or now, “Honour thy father and thy mother” is a commandment that sometimes takes us down strange and unwelcome ways.


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