Celebrity Masterchef winner Angellica Bell says her grandmother was always the life and soul of the party, until Alzheimer’s slowly took hold.
Here, the former CBBC presenter shares the devastating impact dementia had on their family.
I WOULD call my gran ‘Mama’. My mum and I went to live with her when I was about four, when my parents split, so she helped raise me.
She was my mum’s mum and larger than life. She was born in St Lucia and came over during the Windrush era and settled in west London. She was a character, a bundle of energy and joy, and wasn’t afraid to say what she thought. Mama’s presence was always felt; she was the keystone of our family and her house was the hub.
Even when we did get our own place, Mama lived opposite my primary school so I’d still go to her house nearly every day after school. All my friends knew her because she’d run down the road calling me, bringing me bread and cheese. She always wanted to look after me.
We did so much together. We’d go on bus trips to Shepherd’s Bush Market to get her Caribbean food and we’d chat and sing on the way.
We’d dance together in the kitchen, and cooking was her thing, so she taught me how to cook from a very early age. She was a chef in the Caribbean and I was gutting fish, preparing chicken and frying food from the age of six.
Mama had a black-berry bush in her garden and she’d make me go and pick the berries to make apple and blackberry crumble. That’s why, when I was a contestant on MasterChef in 2017 and we were given the mystery box, I thought, ‘What would Mama have done?’
That’s how she cooked – she’d use what she had. She didn’t follow cookbooks and never wrote anything down, which is a shame because I can’t replicate some of her recipes. I put one of them in my cookbook, though – rock buns, which we used to make together.
Mama’s mind was always alert. She always remembered things, she spoke in Patois and English and she was active and resourceful, which is why it was so hard when her memory started to go. I went off to university and started my TV career but would always go and see her – but it’s much more stark the difference when you haven’t seen someone for a while.
I knew she was getting old but gradually she started to forget things, which was really distressing. When you’re not with them, you think of them as the perfect person you know and love, but she became different when I actually saw her. Her forgetfulness was intermittent from the age of 75, but really accelerated once she turned 85.
Then one time she forgot my name. It was like someone pierced my heart. Then it started happening often. She’d ask, ‘Who are you?’ and I’d say, ‘Mama, it’s me, Angellica!’ Sometimes I’d have to go out the room and cry; she was my life, I was so close to her. When she remembered who I was, she’d ask, ‘Are you still working in television’?’ She was very proud of my job. And then I’d ask her about something else and she wouldn’t remember.
Then she started having visions and was certain she could see fish floating in the room. I’d say, ‘Mama, where are the fish?’
It got to the point where I’d walk in the house and I could have been anyone. It just seems like a blur now because I’ve tried to block it out. I’d have to build myself up to go and see her because I just didn’t know how I could cope with it.
Sometimes I feel guilty and think I should have gone to see her more. But then she didn’t know who I was and I couldn’t handle it – I’d just cry all the time.
After a couple of years Mama stopped talking; the brain stops telling you the everyday things you need to do. And then she stopped eating. And it was like watching a shell of someone and you’re just kind of sitting and waiting for them to pass.
I’d say, ‘Please, Mama, just get up and eat, please!’ It’s really difficult to comprehend when you knew someone as being the life and soul of the party.
She was bedridden for the last years of her life, and carers would come in and look after her. Occasionally you’d have glimpses of her personality or she’d start talking in Patois – it was like she was fighting the disease, which almost gave you hope and then it would take hold of her again.
I felt like I’d lost her before she died in hospital at the age of 98 in July, 2018. I don’t talk about myself and personal things often, but it’s important when people share stories and experiences like these.
There are a lot of people caring for loved ones or who’ve experienced loss – dementia doesn’t discriminate. I think it helps people to feel support, hope and reassurance.
Maybe that’s why I’m talking about her – to celebrate an amazing person and all that she did.
Dementia is the UK’s biggest killer. One in three people born in the UK today will develop it in their lifetime. Alzheimer’s Society vows to help end the devastation caused by dementia, providing help and hope for everyone affected. For more information or to donate visit alzheimers.org.uk
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