A cat brings delight to the face of a dementia sufferer (Image: Sean Gallup/Getty)

    Dementia is ‘an opportunity’, according to Michael Gove. What a brave thing to say

    13 March 2015

    Michael Gove said something startling about dementia in a speech last night launching an initiative called ‘The Good Right’ at the Legatum Institute. But blink and you would have missed it.

    If you regard dementia as a friend’s departure from our world rather than an opportunity to bring them closer to your heart, then you miss the essence of compassion.

    I bristled when I heard that – at first. Mary, my dearest friend in the world, a lady in her 90s, has dementia. Probably. Depending on how you define it. When I was visiting her the other day, a young GP breezed in and talked about her ‘dementia’ – right in front of her, speaking about her in the third person, riding roughshod over the very sensible guidelines of the Alzheimer’s Society which ask you not to do that. ‘It’s not dementia,’ said her carer – who has decades of experience and limited tolerance for glib young medics. ‘It’s the Parkinson’s.’

    She and I know only too well that Mary zones in and out – it’s like a radio signal, sometimes strong, sometimes painfully faint. When she’s tired, and my God it’s an exhausting illness, she’ll decide it’s time to go to church at three in the morning. When she’s on form, she’ll ask you whether Ukip are going to get enough seats to deprive the Tories of an overall majority. She’s voted to keep Labour out in every election since 1945, even though she wasn’t Churchill’s biggest fan. ‘I didn’t like the esteem in which he held himself,’ she told me when the BBC was making such a fuss about the 50th anniversary of his death. Put it this way: her mental state is fragile, but no more so than the great man’s was when he stepped down as PM.

    Things aren’t going to get better, though, and the confusion, dementia, whatever you call it, is upsetting for all of us who love her – though it doesn’t trouble her as much as it did, thanks to Citalopram, an SSRI anti-depressant. Part of our distress is bound up with our own confusion. When cognitive impairment isn’t stable, which it rarely is, you never know what to expect. Several conditions, and especially the demonic Alzheimer’s that claimed Terry Pratchett yesterday, produce personality changes that play insidious tricks with your own personality. People find themselves talking to a loved one with a sharpness that makes them wonder if it’s them that’s changed. Mary doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, fortunately, but she can switch from lucidity to confusion mid-sentence and it’s horribly disorientating.

    So, as I say, I bristled when Mr Gove talked about dementia as an ‘opportunity’, but when I re-read what he’d said my heart was touched. Let me quote it again:

    If you regard dementia as a friend’s departure from our world rather than an opportunity to bring them closer to your heart, then you miss the essence of compassion.

    I have no way of knowing this, but I wonder if the Chief Whip was drawing on some experience of his own. When did you last hear a politician dare to offer what amounts to moral advice? We’re a world away here from the platitudes of most public figures, including churchmen. I think Mr Gove knew he was venturing into territory that his colleagues wouldn’t dare approach and that was why he said it almost sotto voce – for those with ears to hear and the willingness to consider that a Tory MP might have a spiritual message to impart. Speaking personally, he helped me clarify the challenge I face. And I am speaking very personally, because if you’ve read this far you’ve possibly guessed that Mary is my mother.