‘Sometimes I just sit and cry. I know I’ve got dementia but I can’t remember being diagnosed’

Thelma Duffield. Photo credit: David Duffield

“Get yourself a drink,” Thelma Duffield says. “There’s a Diet Coke in the fridge.”

Thelma has a caffeine fix of her own sitting on the window ledge, but this one is the cold cup of coffee that she made three hours ago.

After deciding to make herself another one, her mind wanders before she has the chance to get up out of her chair.

“I think I’ve got an appointment tomorrow for something-or-other,” she says. After checking her diary, she realises that she had a blood test two days earlier and her son David took her to the appointment.

Thelma has been a lynchpin of her local community in the village of Countesthorpe for many years. She is the window of highly-respected parish and district councillor Frank, who died in 2011.

Her diary used to look very different. It was packed with local events, something almost every evening. From council meetings to lunches and dinners with senior figures, Thelma has lived a busy life and was always at the heart of local politics and interest groups.

Things are very different now. Since being diagnosed with dementia two years ago, her life is quiet. She sees her son David and his wife, Lynn, on a regular basis. Carole, Thelma’s daughter, lives in Middlesex and travels up four times a year.

“Sometimes I just sit and cry, you know,” Thelma admits suddenly. “I know I’ve got dementia but I can’t remember being diagnosed. The only way I can tell that I’m repeating things is when I see people’s faces. They’re frustrated with me.

“‘Yeah, yeah, you told me that already’ is what the say. The worst times are when they finish your sentence because you’ve said it already. I couldn’t, for the life of me, tell you what I did this morning but I remember hurtful bits. It should be the other way around,” she says.

Having found herself in several potentially dangerous situations, including one stranger giving her a lift home from Marks and Spencer because she couldn’t remember how she got there, Thelma admits that it does take its toll on her.

“I try to laugh it off when I’m in an embarrassing situation,” she explains. “I don’t feel embarrassed when I’m talking, but I can gauge from the reactions of others that I’ve made a fool of myself. I blame it on my ‘silly brain’ – that’s the phrase I use.”

As she sits quietly for a while, it seems that Thelma is trying desperately to remember what she’s just been talking about so that she can continue the conversation. After two uncomfortable minutes, she gives in.

“Do you want a Diet Coke?” she asks. “There’s plenty in the fridge.”

Each cupboard in the kitchen has its own Post-It note, detailing the contents behind each door. There are also notes by each appliance to explain what it’s for and how to use it. On the worktop, there are boxes of tablets. Each labelled with ‘morning’, ‘afternoon’ or ‘evening’ and a reminder of what each one is for.

‘Don’t forget to eat today,’ says a large note on the fridge door. ‘Your meals are in here,’ reads the one below it.

Back in the lounge, Thelma is sat checking her diary, her face screwed up with confusion. “I’m sure I’ve got an appointment tomorrow,” she says.

After being reminded of her blood test two days ago, she settles. Her eyes look over to a picture of Frank and, spectacularly, she recounts a story from the 1950s in perfect detail.

A tale of how her husband would take her to the Isle of Wight and they would pick berries from the bushes before carrying them back to the hotel. She would take them home and make pots of jam for family and friends.

“I’d always make strawberry jam for David. You know, I haven’t seen him for months and months,” she says of her son, who visits several times a week after work and takes her shopping every other Saturday.

“I don’t see anybody, really. I just the telly on and sit in my chair. I’m sure I’ve got things to do, you know. Somebody wants me to do something.”

Thelma pauses for a while before recounting the story from the 1950s a second time. She tells it in exactly the same way she did before. Word for word. Not a detail out of place.

“Thanks for coming around, my dear,” she says as this interview draws to a close. “Are you sure you don’t want a Diet Coke before you go?”

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