Frieda Allenstein is ninety-six years old next Thursday, but she’s the only one here who doesn’t know it. Frieda has dementia. She’s being cared for in her own flat by a combination of live-in carers and her family who live nearby. It’s a loving remedy for a cruel disease that in the last few years has robbed Frieda of her independence, her orientation in the world, her identity. She is curled up on her side on the bed, her head cradled in the crook of her arm, staring at the sunlight pouring in through the window.
‘Listen to them talking,’ she mutters. ‘Lies. All lies.’
When I lean over to look at her, her eyes are glittering and hard.
The EMI outreach team have changed Frieda’s meds and that’s perhaps one reason why she’s shown a decline this last week. She’s fallen a couple of times – non-injury, but her confidence is shaken and she’s withdrawn to bed. She’s refusing to take any of her pills, and becoming increasingly aggressive to Marta, the live-in carer.
‘I can do nothing,’ she says, standing in the doorway as we gently coax some observations from Frieda. ‘First she is with the biting and now with the slaps.’
Frieda’s son-in-law, Jacob, a rounded and friendly man in his late sixties, sits on an Ottoman with his hands placed either side, as if he were ready at a moment’s notice to spring up and be helpful.
‘My wife’s away on business till Monday,’ he says. ‘What do I tell her? Should we get her back early?’
‘Let’s have a talk first about the options. I don’t think we need to be rushing off to hospital. I think there’s a good chance we can manage this at home with a little extra help.’
I make a couple of phone calls, wait for a ring back.
Jacob makes us tea, and we drink it next door in Frieda’s living room, a bright and lovely room crowded with paintings and photos and the collected ephemera of her life.
‘She’s accomplished so much,’ he says, cradling his cup. ‘So much. It’s tragic she should suffer this thing, but then I suppose she’s had ninety odd years of good health. It’s only in the last couple she’s gone downhill, so that’s a blessing.’
‘It is.’‘You know – my son jokes with me. He says “Dad, when you start to go like that, let’s take you to Switzerland.” So I say “What do you mean, Switzerland? You want I should go to that dreadful clinic and be finished off?” And you know what he says? He says: “You know it’s for the best, Pops. Everybody wins. You get to avoid all this mess, and we get to eat Toblerone on the flight back.”’