Losing my beloved ‘Nans’
Thursday, 07 June 2012

Losing my beloved ‘Nans’

Oscar-nominated actress Carey Mulligan has painful, first-hand experience of Alzheimer’s: her much-loved grandmother suffers from it. But now she hopes to make a difference, as Katy Pearson reveals

Written by Katy Pearson

It was six years ago that Oscar-nominated actress Carey Mulligan realised Alzheimer’s was taking a hold of her beloved grandmother. ‘We sat down to dinner,’ 26-year-old Carey recalls, ‘and she looked at the cutlery in front of her and the plate of food, and couldn’t remember how to use the knife and fork.’

Carey, who has recently filmed a new big-screen version of The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio and was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in 2009 film An Education, has become an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society to help promote awareness of the condition. Her grandmother – whom she calls ‘Nans’ – has been living with Alzheimer’s for about 11 years, prompting the actress’s support for the charity.

Nans was a huge part of Carey’s life when she was growing up. ‘She taught me how to sing, she got me interested in poetry,’ says Carey. ‘She was a really warm, maternal, amazing person.

‘We used to bake together, we used to make this amazing cherry almond cake, which I’ve just found the recipe for after years of searching. We had amazing times together.’

Witnessing Nans’ confusion and distress as the condition took hold was painful for the whole family – and for none more so than Nans herself.

Carey at a centre in Kentish TownCarey at a centre in Kentish Town

‘There was obviously a period of time that was very difficult, not least for Nans, when she was experiencing the confusion and had the self-awareness that she was forgetting things and becoming forgetful,’ recalls Carey.

‘That was very difficult. But it’s almost better now she’s passed that stage. She’s in a really amazing home that we love visiting because it’s so vibrant and such a joyful place to be.’

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, affecting around 62 per cent of those diagnosed. There are 800,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to more than 1 million by 2021. There is no cure for it, or any other type of dementia – but delaying the onset of dementia by five years would halve the number of deaths from the condition, saving 30,000 lives a year, says the Alzheimer’s Society.

Carey says Nans now no longer recognises anyone and she isn’t communicative. ‘She’s different from time to time,’ explains Carey. ‘Sometimes she’s very quiet and she just sleeps; sometimes she makes a lot of noise. And sometimes there’s an amazing moment where you see exactly who she was – or exactly who she is inside.’

Nans still delights in music. And through music Carey does manage to communicate with Nans. ‘Sometimes if she’s distressed or not communicating, if you play a piece of music she’ll start tapping her feet or occasionally she’ll sing a bit of the song,’ explains Carey. ‘So now I mix her a tape and I’ll judge whether she likes the people I’ve chosen by her reaction. She loves male voice choirs and opera singers and you can see her relaxing – it’s a lovely way to see her.’

Carey has given her support to the charity in the hope she can bring attention to the condition. ‘This is something that’s a very painful thing for families. It causes a huge amount of stress and sadness, anxiety and grief, and it’s not given the attention it needs.

‘I’m sure people think it’s just a part of being old. When people can understand it is an illness, that it needs to be researched, there needs to be prevention and a cure – then we can start tackling it seriously.’

The Alzheimer’s Society works to improve the quality of life of people affected by dementia in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. For information, support and guidance: 0845-300 0336, www.alzheimers.org.uk


Millions of pounds have been pledged by David Cameron for research into new dementia treatments. Last month he announced a £30m research programme to pay for studies into methods (other than the use of anti-psychotic drugs) of calming dementia sufferers’ unpredictable behaviour. The money will also be used to research how to treat painful diseases and injuries in Alzheimer’s sufferers who cannot describe their symptoms.

Previously in March the Prime Minister had pledged to double funding for research into dementia to £66m by 2015. At the time, Mr Cameron said: ‘One of the greatest challenges of our time is what I’d call the quiet crisis, one that steals lives and tears at the hearts of families, but that relative to its impact, is hardly acknowledged.

‘Dementia is simply a terrible disease. And it is a scandal that we as a country haven’t kept pace with it. The level of diagnosis, understanding and awareness of dementia is shockingly low. It is as though we’ve been in collective denial.’

The issue should be treated as a ‘national crisis’, he added.

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