'When Are We Leaving?'

UNESCO Courier, January 1999 | Go to article overview

'When Are We Leaving?'


A husband's moving chronicle of his wife's descent into Alzheimer's disease

JB is an elderly retired professional man who lives quietly in an English provincial city. Early in 1997 his 77-year-old wife was diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer's disease, an age-related degenerative brain disorder which affects memory, thinking, behaviour and emotion.

The first sign that something was seriously amiss had come two years before, when IM had gone to London to visit friends. She had failed to arrive and returned home, having completely forgotten where she was going. Before that, during a question-and-answer session at an academic gathering, she had been uncharacteristically lost for words. The couple saw their doctor who asked IM who the Prime Minister was. She said she had no idea but that surely it didn't matter. There followed a series of brain scans and exhaustive memory and language tests, as a result of which she was diagnosed as being in the early stages of Alzheimer's.

Inexorable mental decline

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, a malady that afflicts one in 20 people over the age of 65. It affects all groups in society irrespective of social class, gender, ethnic group or geographical location. According to current estimates, by the year 2000 there will be roughly 18 million people with dementia in the world, about two-thirds of them Alzheimer victims.

Treatment is in its infancy and as yet nothing seems to slow the sufferer's inexorable mental decline. The disorder's first stage may seem relatively benign. After all, most people as they age lose mental sharpness, misplace things, forget people's names and suffer other minor mental lapses. From then on, however, it's downhill all the way. "Alzheimer's is like an insidious fog," JB says, "barely noticeable until everything around has disappeared. After that it is no longer possible to believe that a world outside the fog exists."

As the disease progresses, the patient becomes dependent on others for help with all aspects of daily life. This care is usually provided by the immediate family and the period of dependency can last for many years. "Alzheimer sufferers are not always gentle," JB notes, and caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease has been described as calling for the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon and the selflessness of a saint.

A few months ago JB published a beautifully written short memoir of his wife, describing their lives together "Then" (before the onset of Alzheimer's) and "Now", a series of vignettes of IM's tragic descent into mental nullity. Serialized in the press, it struck a powerful chord among many who are not only facing a more prolonged old age than that of their forebears but may be coping with the decline of someone to whom they are close. IM's case is particularly heart-rending in view of what she had done before she began, as she put it, to sail into the darkness. She is Iris Murdoch, one of the century's most gifted novelists writing in English and an author with a devoted readership worldwide (her works have been translated into 23 languages). Her husband, JB, is John Bayley, a noted literary critic and former Oxford professor.(1)

For over forty years Iris Murdoch had been engrossed in writing fiction and philosophy. In 27 novels published between 1954 and 1995, she had created a vivid world peopled by intelligent and intensely human figures whose exceptional capacities for feeling and thinking were tested in situations that were often macabre, comic and melodramatic. …

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