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Nine Red Busses In The Karoo

On Tuesday I did a talk on “Dementia – what happens to the person behind the disease”. After the talk, a 97-year-old lady came to chat with me. She was beautifully dressed and looked like a cheerful person.

She told me how much she enjoyed my talk and wanted to know my thoughts on hallucinations. She had a twinkle in her eyes, and I immediately liked her. Of course, my first question was “well, what drugs are you taking?” She laughed and said that she was on no medication. I asked her if these hallucinations were worrying her, and she said not really. They were however worrying her daughter!

I find it interesting, as the nature of a hallucination is that most people will not recognise them as such – they will believe that what they see is real. For this lady it was different – she knew that what she was seeing was not real. Yet she saw what she saw – and it was very real. She knew that she was “hallucinating”.

I asked her to tell me what kind of things she saw. “Well,” she said, “I was sitting on the stoep on my daughter’s farm, and I saw nine red London busses drive past in the distance”. I laughed and asked her if the farm was in the Tankwa Karoo anywhere near Africa Burn – it was not. I then asked her what she thought these things were that she was seeing. She told me that her Mother was psychic – and that she often thought that she had the same gift.

This really intrigued me – if only for the reason that we so easily label anything that we cannot explain as a medical condition. It is the easy way out – to psychiatrise behaviour. I told her that if she was part of certain African tribes, she would have been hailed as someone communicating with “the other side”, talking to her ancestors, and being gifted with a “third eye” insight. Yet, in our dumbed-down world of biomedical science, she would be labelled as demented.

This lady is as sharp as a button, she has a keen sense of humour and an even sharper wit. She is living independently and is healthy. Yet, because her daughter does not understand her visions, she wants her to be labelled as demented. We laughed about it, but I could sense that she was worried.

She then asked me if I knew that they were poisoning the pigeons at the home. I do know that they were doing this – some residents feed the pigeons, but the food attracts rats. She proceeded with an elaborate story on how the poison that is being used goes into the trees, and that she can see the trees all in flames. She stopped abruptly, head askew and said “I am hallucinating again, aren’t I?” We both had a giggle, I gave her a hug and we had a cup of tea.

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