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Reet Petite - The finest girl you ever want to meet.

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During Dementia Awareness Week, Bromford colleague Hayley Eagle pays tribute to her nan and talks about the lasting memories she has of her before the effects of dementia took hold. 

“Pick a ring Hayley, so that one day when I’m gone I know you’ll have something to always remember me by”.
“Nan, don’t be silly, you’re not going anywhere”. So went the conversation between the ten year old me and my nan, during a time when I thought she was indestructible and the idea that I would ever be unfortunate enough to own one of her beautiful rings was incomprehensible to me. It gives me no joy to say that I have recently come into possession of the eternity ring I reluctantly picked out that day eighteen years ago. It gives me even less joy to say that I came into possession of this ring because of the devastating effects of dementia which took hold of my nan and never let go.

To my nan, the thought that she would ever have to live with dementia was as ludicrous to her as I found being asked to pick one of her prized rings. She was not one to take things lying down. Hell no. She was as far removed from the stereotypical ‘Nan’ as you’re ever likely to find and for that she was fantastic. If any of our family had walked in on her baking a Victoria Sponge cake, I’d imagine we’d all have gone into irreversible shock. She wasn’t one for baking, aprons and rolling pins but all for Marks and Spencer’s food, Aquascutum skirt suits, weekly blow dries and P&O Cruises. My cousins, brother and I didn’t call her ‘Posh Nan’ and ‘Mrs Bouquet’ for nothing. I don’t think I ever once caught her in a pair of jeans or trainers.

She had a heart of gold and would go above and beyond to help others, especially her family, and when her mind was made up on something, you were powerless to change it. Once a huge fan of a rum and coke accompanied by a packet of Benson and Hedges (her sister maintains to this day that my nan taught her how to drink properly and ‘not like a girl’), one day she woke up and decided that she just didn’t want to drink and smoke anymore, and so that was that. Never touched a drop again and remained tobacco free.

She overcame an unsuccessful marriage to my grandad in the 60s, met the true love of her life in the 70s and never looked back. Their favourite song to dance to at parties was ‘Reet Petite’. She was devastated at the death of my mum (her daughter) and while I imagine she never fully recovered from the shock, she continued living life and being there for her family when we needed it the most.

She took me shopping for my first bra, something I should have done with my mum, and when I got upset she made a cracking joke about calling out the AA to sort out a flat tyre. Perhaps I should have been insulted but it made me crack a smile when I really needed it. She tried to keep her mind sharp by burying her head in crossword puzzles and word games, and would take me to my favourite book shop in Golders Green for a treat as a child (I was and still am a massive bookworm). She was a natural chatterbox, there was no such thing as a quick phone call to her and when you hung up you’d feel not just listened to, but entertained.

I tell you all of this because to a passer-by seeing her in her last few years, none of the above would be at all apparent. She had fascinating stories, an interesting life and a family she’d do anything for, yet to those who didn’t know her in her fabulous years, she was just another dementia victim, sat in a chair, dependent on others, with no stories or anecdotes flowing from her mouth.

Dementia is a terrible disease that takes away the parts you love the most about your loved one. Not enough is spent on researching and treating this disease, and yet so many people end up living with it. Those six or so years that my nan had dementia were years she could have spent playing with her great grandchildren, talking on the phone to her sister, shopping for suits, cruising around the Med and enjoying the retirement she and my grandad had worked so hard for.

It might not look it on the outside, but victims of dementia have stories to tell and families to live for. To deny them this is unfair, and they shouldn’t be written off just because most people with dementia are usually past a certain age. I’ve told you enough about my Nan for you to come to a pretty solid conclusion about what she’d have felt about her last few years had she had a crystal ball, and that would be mortified.

Whilst I was of course sad to see her pass away a few weeks ago, I was more saddened to see how she changed and became a shadow of herself. She would rather have died than known she would go through dementia, yet we shouldn’t be resigning people to only those two options. Were there better treatment options, more money spent on research and more doctors picking up on early symptoms (often reported by family but dismissed as “old age...nothing to worry about”, which is what happened when my grandad convinced her to go to the doctors in the very early stages), then perhaps dementia wouldn’t be so debilitating and people diagnosed with it might be able to still live fairly normally and not see it as a fate worse than death.  

While my nan could not escape dementia, my memories of her will never be of her last few years. She was vibrant, strong, funny, stubborn, generous, smart and sharp and that is how I will always remember her and what will come to mind every time I look down at her sparkling eternity ring. During the final moments of her funeral, ‘Reet Petite’ played and I smiled at the memories of her up in that dance floor with my grandad, having the time of her life. May she rest in peace.