Opinion

All that glisters is not gold

Tim Harrison's mother passed her dementia test with flying colours – even pointing out a flawed question
glitter

I had never been to a memory clinic before accompanying my mother a year ago. Months earlier, during a short hospital spell following a suspected mini-stroke, she had taken a routine dementia test standard procedure for all over 75s with worrying results.

When the subject of glitter cropped up in a dementia test it provided Miriam Harrison with the opportunity to point out a Shakespeare misquote Photo: Getty

An hour of questions, writing and drawing shapes had produced a score of 19 out of 30; anything below 24 being considered a dementia risk, anything below 20 a serious pointer to Alzheimers. Yet she had also had a urinary infection, which may have had some bearing on the result.

At 89, and living at home with carer support, my mother still did the Telegraph crossword each day. But the test score had resulted in Dementia

...

I had never been to a memory clinic before accompanying my mother a year ago. Months earlier, during a short hospital spell following a suspected mini-stroke, she had taken a routine dementia test – standard procedure for all over 75s – with worrying results.


When the subject of glitter cropped up in a dementia test it provided Miriam Harrison with the opportunity to point out a Shakespeare misquote Photo: Getty

An hour of questions, writing and drawing shapes had produced a score of 19 out of 30; anything below 24 being considered a dementia risk, anything below 20 a serious pointer to Alzheimer’s. Yet she had also had a urinary infection, which may have had some bearing on the result.

At 89, and living at home with carer support, my mother still did the Telegraph crossword each day. But the test score had resulted in ‘Dementia’ being stamped on her file, and several of her visiting carers acting as if she had lost her marbles.

We were both apprehensive as we arrived for the follow-up assessment. If it indicated a worsening situation, it would have implications.

Staff were welcoming

The memory clinic staff were welcoming, speaking clearly to my mother so she followed everything. After a short wait in a cosy side room we went through to see the doctor. I was allowed to sit in, provided I positioned myself behind my mother and promised to keep quiet, so I could not influence her responses.

It began well. She knew who the prime minister was, she knew which month it was, and she managed to name ten different animals beginning with ‘C’. She even succeeded in subtracting 87 from 133 in her head, and correctly spelt ‘world’ backwards. It was then that the trouble started.

All that glitters... what?

‘Now dear,’ said the doctor. ‘I want you to complete the following phrase: All that glitters... what?’ Without a moment’s hesitation my mother answered: ‘That’s wrong.’

Thinking she had not heard properly, the doctor tried again. Speaking slowly she said: ‘You have to complete the phrase. All that glitters... what?’ Again my mother responded: ‘That’s wrong.’

The doctor looked at me with an expression that said: ‘It’s worse than we thought.’

The question was wrong

Breaking my vow of silence, I explained that she was trying to point out that the question was wrong. My mother cleared her throat and piped up again. ‘The correct quotation is: All that glisters is not gold, not all that glitters.’

The doctor stared at her, got up and left the room for a few moments, presumably to do a quick bit of Googling. 

When she returned she graciously admitted that the test question that she herself had devised, and had been using without challenge for five years, did indeed appear to be flawed.

It's from the Merchant of Venice

We all sat in silence for a few moments. Interpreting the pause as a requirement to provide further detail, my mother leant forward and said: ‘It’s from the Merchant of Venice. Do I get a bonus point for that?’

We were informed that the test had ended and that, having scored 27 out of 30, there was no need to attend any further memory clinic appointments. We got home and had a cup of tea, and my mother sat in her chair for the rest of that afternoon wearing a rather smug smile.

Eight months later she developed a cancerous tumour, and opted not to undergo invasive treatment. She died peacefully in her bed, looking out at the copper beech trees and still wearing that lovely smile.

Tim Harrison is a freelance journalist

Want to read more?

Subscribe for unlimited access

Enjoy 1 month's access for £1 and get:

  • Full access to nursingolderpeople.com
  • Bi-monthly digital edition
  • RCNi Portfolio and interactive CPD quizzes
  • RCNi Learning with 200+ evidence-based modules
  • 10 articles a month from any other RCNi journal

This article is not available as part of an institutional subscription. Why is this?

Jobs