I am Mary’s brother Christopher who lives in Australia. I have a story about how dementia can have a broader tragic impact on others. Some years ago, in the 1990s, an elderly man with dementia died under the wheels of my van on the highway between Sydney and Canberra.
I was driving back with my girlfriend from a visit to her family, a two day drive south from Brisbane – Australians are used to long distances. I was driving that stretch of the multi-lane highway and she was asleep in the back across one of the bench seats of the Mitsubishi L300 4WD van I had then.
Out of nowhere, as there were fields around, an odd looking elderly man appeared in a raincoat and carrying an umbrella, crossing the opposite lanes to the central dividing strip where he stopped, appearing to wait until a break in the traffic on our side before crossing further.
As I got close enough to see the expression on his face it suddenly changed to one difficult to describe, of fear and bewilderment as though he had suddenly noticed where he was and what he was doing, and panicked. He then did exactly the wrong thing and ran as though to get across in front of me. As I braked he hit the front of the van and fell onto the verge.
By extraordinary chance an off-duty ambulance was approaching in the opposite direction and saw the accident, and paramedics were with us within seconds. He was already dead. Other drivers from behind also stopped. They and the ambulance crew all very kindly made a point of telling me that I could not have avoided him, and that they would be witness to that if needed.
Later the police identified him, and told me he was suffering from dementia and was a known wanderer from home. I offered to go and see his widow but they advised against it.
I think it greatly helped that I was reassured by other people that there was nothing more I could have done. Left to our own thoughts we are likely to dwell on these things, endlessly re-running them as a self-critique. I was able to put the experience behind me because of the assistance from others.
My sleeping girlfriend was woken by the fatal accident. She was the only person present who did not see what happened, but that may have contributed to later sleeping difficulties.
So, a very sad end for the poor man, especially as it seemed to me that it may have been a moment of sudden lucidity that undid him. Also for his wife who must have finally received the news she dreaded would sometime come.