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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Keeper: a book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordsworth and cake

by Gillies, Andrea

on 08/12/2010

Price: £8.99

Published: May 2010

Format: paperback

No Pages: 320 pages


ISBN-13: 9781906021993

Category: Biographical

Do not be fooled by the light-hearted ‘cake’ in the title of this book. This is an account of the sombre journey made by the author, on committing herself as the carer of her mother-in-law, Nancy, who has dementia. However, Andrea Gillies travels this path with a liberal sprinkling of humour to make what could otherwise be a truly harrowing read, enjoyable and a page turner. It rightly won the 2009 Wellcome prize for medicine in literature.


Andrea’s journey is an edifying read to any health care professional who works with dementia and their carers. She presents a disturbing account of how that ‘professionalism’ can seem uncompassionate and unhelpful.


Andrea felt Nancy could hoodwink her doctors into thinking she was more capable than she was. In one example, Nancy answers the standard MMSE question: ‘what is your date of birth?’ with a cheerful laugh about her poor memory, and questioning was dropped. The doctors were successfully convinced; I found it hard to accept that an experienced doctor would be so easily reassured.


Andrea found some touching ways to calm Nancy’s agitation, one of them being the cake, which Nancy so obviously relished. Another good distraction was the two of them playing ‘follow the leader’ and inventing silly walks for the other to copy. However, despite the author’s obvious good humour and creativity, she also paints a clear picture of her own deteriorating mental health as her role became increasingly difficult.


Andrea Gillies is clearly a highly intelligent woman, and has ably combined literary, artistic and scientific examinations of dementia. Her scientific analogies of how dementia affects the brain were extremely well described and could prove very helpful to medical students struggling with the basic concepts of neurology.


I tentatively offered Keeper to a relative whose mother had lived with dementia for the last 10 years of her life. She finished the book in record time, saying she wished she’d read it while her mother was still alive. Thus it’s certainly a book to recommend to anyone who knows someone with dementia.


This is also a book that all health care professionals working with dementia need to read, to understand our patients and their carers better.


Overall, this book deserved its accolade as winner of the Wellcome prize for medicine in literature. It is beautifully written, thought provoking and highlights many important considerations about our ageing population.



Dr Aruna Sahni

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