In her debut, journalist Gillies strikingly chronicles her slow disintegration as she struggled to nurse a mother-in-law stricken with Alzheimer’s disease.
When the author agreed to care for her husband’s elderly parents—Morris dwindling physically, Nancy dwindling mentally—the family moved into a rambling Victorian manse in northern Scotland. The heavy weather of their remote peninsula paralleled the gathering storms inside Nancy’s head. Tangling the lines of communication in her brain, the disease ate steadily through her memory, emotions and thought processes. With economy of expression, an eye for detail and a storyteller’s knack for dialogue, Gillies charts Nancy’s terrible course from doddering to vicious and her own decline into caregiver dementia, complete with paranoia and depression. Along the way, the author makes numerous field trips into brain chemistry, following Alzheimer’s as it erases personality, robs the sufferer of memory, disinhibits behavior and finally truncates thought. Gillies explains with sparking anger how the United Kingdom’s social system has failed miserably to address dementia as an illness. Yet she can also tack away from the disease and let in some fresh air with a painterly description of their wild Scottish outpost. She once thought she might encounter the Sublime there, but “the hunt for the Sublime…has become a grimly private joke.” The constant grind of tending to Nancy was ruinous for Gillies, who progressed from sympathy over her mother-in-law’s tears, confusion, misery and baffled panic to simply wanting to be rid of a woman whose rants and rages had become everyday—indeed, every hour—occurrences. From this bleak family experience “soaked marrow-deep in defeat,” the author emerged with awe and gratitude for a working brain: “how associative it is and how rich, in its leading from one thing to another, into that whole interior landscape of yoked-together and often incongruous thoughts that adds up to a self.”
An unvarnished cautionary tale, demonstrating that anyone who assumes caregiving responsibilities blindly or out of guilt is hopping on a greased chute to self-destruction.