DEMAND AN END TO POVERTY THIS GENERAL ELECTION
TAKE ACTION
Radio

Radio with Robin Ince – a journey into dementia on Radio 4’s Book of the Week

The serialisation of Somebody I Used to Know – Wendy Mitchell's first-person account of early-onset Alzheimer’s – is a unique, moving and sobering listen.

Not that long ago, it was a commonly held belief that dementia was the result of not using your mind enough in old age. Keep doing crosswords and your mind will be just fine. The chronicling of Iris Murdoch’s decline due to Alzheimer’s put paid to that old tale. Her last work, Jackson’s Dilemma, was studied to find out if there were clues to her Alzheimer’s and the researchers observed a reduction in vocabulary and a simplification of language. Jackson’s Dilemma was not written by someone aware of their dementia. Somebody I Used to Know is.

Serialised as Radio 4’s Book of the Week, it is the first memoir about Alzheimer’s by someone with it. Wendy Mitchell (pictured above), an NHS worker and single mother, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 58.

It’s the loss of knowledge that has been taken for granted for decades being stripped away that makes this so stark at times. A lifetime of baking must suddenly end. Having regularly made cakes for a local hospice, Wendy takes the mix from the oven and finds it inedible. Only the week before, she had confused teaspoons for tablespoons. “I feel a visceral grief at saying goodbye, this time to baking, something I’ve done my whole life.”

Having brought up her two daughters alone, she is horrified when she realises that, for the first time in 34 years, she has forgotten one of their birthdays.

The Alzheimer’s Society send Wendy to review the early-onset Alzheimer’s drama, Still Alice.

She watches this fictional account and marvels at Julianne Moore’s portrayal of her own condition. Seeing Alice losing recognition of her loved ones, Wendy wonders where the love goes: “[It] must stay trapped inside instead.”

Having brought up her two daughters alone, she is horrified when she realises that, for the first time in 34 years, she has forgotten one of their birthdays

Wendy writes a blog to ensure her present life is not lost. She is able to observe some changes as positive. She can no longer watch thrillers as she forgets the clues and details that lead to the final-act revelations, but she sees that a progressive illness can focus the mind in other ways. She now reads poetry, its brevity offering something beautiful and intriguing that is accessible to her.

She used to be fearful of animals like cats, but now she explains that “this softening in my brain means I have made time to sit and stare and watch”, and as she sits and watches, she empathises with those animals that worried her as they do the same. She finds she is not afraid any more “of cats or of the dark or of the disease”.

The rewards we gain from access to clean water, vaccination and other innovations have led to us meeting other illnesses with increased regularity. Most of us will know someone who has dementia, some of us will be the person diagnosed with it too. It is hard to imagine the picking away of memory. Beautifully read by Tessa Gallagher, this memoir, written without despair, created an evocative window into the changing life and mind of Wendy.

I should also briefly note that Bridget Christie, one of the most brilliant stand-ups currently working, is back on Radio 4 and talking about auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Uncanny USA podcast host Danny Robins on Bigfoot, UFOs and why Americans scare differently to Brits
Danny Robins on set for Uncanny USA sitting on a rusty car
Podcasts

Uncanny USA podcast host Danny Robins on Bigfoot, UFOs and why Americans scare differently to Brits

Rick Edwards: 'I assumed I'd embrace being famous. I quickly realised that wasn't the case'
Rick Edwards
Letter To My Younger Self

Rick Edwards: 'I assumed I'd embrace being famous. I quickly realised that wasn't the case'

BBC cuts to local radio are a cost we cannot afford: 'Vulnerable people rely on radio'
A 1970s radio
Radio

BBC cuts to local radio are a cost we cannot afford: 'Vulnerable people rely on radio'

Shaun Keaveny: 'I was burnt out by the callousness and cruelty of this government'
Shaun Keaveny in a white t-shirt, smiling
Interview

Shaun Keaveny: 'I was burnt out by the callousness and cruelty of this government'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know