Health: I watched mum change as dementia took hold, says Magnusson

Sally with her mother Mamie.
Sally with her mother Mamie.
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Sally Magnusson talks openly to Hannah Stephenson about the brain illness which changed her mother.

Award-winning broadcaster Sally Magnusson’s mother was a bright, curious woman, until dementia took hold. Sally reveals Mamie Baird’s story, and highlights the impact the illness has on millions of families, in her moving new book.

Mamie Baird Magnusson was a fun-loving, spirited mother-of-five, regarded as one of the finest journalists of her generation.

Originally a star writer for the Scottish Daily Express, she married her junior colleague Magnus Magnusson, who was charmed by her inquisitive nature, sharp intellect and zest for life.

As she reached her 70s, her family noticed she wasn’t as inquisitive as she’d once been.

“We noticed a withdrawal of curiosity I found perplexing, because my mother was always the most keen and interested and curious and alert of women,” says her daughter Sally, who presented BBC Breakfast Time in the Eighties and now presents Reporting Scotland.

“Her eyes sparkled when she was around anything interesting. I noticed she wasn’t interested in things I expected her to be interested in, and her grasp of detail was going. She lost interest in writing and it took us a long time to notice that as well.”

Mamie’s wonderful story-telling capacity also began to wander, in search of a punchline.

“You just got this sense that she was going off the boil. But it’s only when looking back that you begin to see that.”

Sally’s father, the late Mastermind host Magnus Magnusson, didn’t voice his concern initially, although Sally is sure he picked up on the fact that things weren’t quite right.

“We spent many years not talking about it and I think that’s common in families. You want to believe everything’s normal and you adjust and try and get on with things as well as you can. My father didn’t put it into words, but gradually it became clear.

“I’m not sure how my father coped,” Sally, 58, continues. “He died before things got so bad that life changed forever.

“He would ask us to come over and jolly her along a bit, to help get her out of bed or get dressed. He was certainly in need of help but he didn’t make a hullabaloo about it.

“Patience was not my father’s strongest suit, ever, yet he showed super-human patience in many ways. He was a cut-to-the-chase sort of chap, and dementia is the opposite of that; things take longer, there’s a lot of fiddling about.”

As conversation became difficult, singing took over and in the latter years, music became a true comfort to Mamie, who was able to sing tunes and enjoyed listening to familiar music which sparked happy memories. It prompted Sally to later set up a charity Playlist For Life, to encourage families to compile playlists of meaningful music for their loved ones.

Mamie was to end up a frail figure in need of constant care, frustrated and angry at the confusion and memory loss that engulfed her, often taking things out on her loving twin sister, Anna, who remained of sound mind.

Sally charts her mother’s life before and after dementia took hold in her moving book, Where Memories Go, intertwining her recollections with her views about a care system which is often sadly lacking among dementia sufferers, highlighting the issues both from a patient’s and a carer’s point of view.

The book not only paints a stark picture of the cruel nature of the dementia which affected her mother for 13 years until her death in April 2012, aged 86, but also brings home the huge inconsistencies in the quality of care sufferers receive in this country.

As well as chronicling the anguish, the frustrations and the unexpected laughs that Sally and her sisters experienced while caring for their mother for eight years until her death, Sally seeks understanding from scientists, doctors, philosophers and politicians, in the face of one of the greatest challenges of our times.

When Magnus was dying of pancreatic cancer (he died in 2007), Mamie wasn’t aware, Sally recalls.

“She found it very difficult to grasp what was going on. Obviously she was deeply in love with him. The combination of these two things and her profound optimism, which was part of her personality, came together to make her feel that her husband couldn’t possibly die. The rest of us knew that he couldn’t live for much longer.”

Her conditioned worsened after his death; confusion and lethargy took over. As the years went by, there was also anger, as Mamie realised she was losing her mind.

“There’s a lot more awareness in people than we might imagine. In the past, I would have comforted myself with the thought that people don’t know what’s going on, therefore it’s all right, but there was no sense of that with my mother,” Sally notes.

“In the early years, she would hotly deny that there was anything wrong with her, but as the years went on, she became aware that her grasp on herself was loosening.

“She used to talk about being on a road ‘getting further and further away from myself’. The words that had always been so light on her tongue she found hard to retrieve.”

In their mother’s final years, Sally and her sisters looked after her at home near Glasgow until the end.

The book highlights shortfalls in a care service as one in three people will develop dementia before they die.

Where Memories Go by Sally Magnusson is published by Two Roads, priced £16.99.

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