Angela Caughey has a warning, and she’s not mincing words.
Sharp as a tack and keenly interested in human behaviour, it takes the author just a few gentle questions to tease out all your unhealthy habits.
If you’re a smoker, vaper, or heavy drinker, you’re in danger of developing dementia, the disease she’s spent years both researching and living with. The warning, like everything else she says, is delivered bluntly: at 92 she’s done with sugar-coating things.
“It’s a gritty thing to say to you, but it’s true. You’re heading down a bad road.”
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Caughey is speaking from her apartment in an Auckland retirement village where later this afternoon she’ll be whipping up 100 sandwiches for the launch of her seventh book. After that she’s going to walk up a steep hill.
“And then, thank you very much, I’ll have my after-lunch read and sleep in my husband’s lazy chair.”
Caughey’s husband Brian is the inspiration both for her latest book and two of her others published in recent years. Diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, he was cared for by Caughey for 12 years until he died in 2006.
Her first book, Dealing Daily with Dementia was published in 2013 and stemmed from her discovery there was bugger-all New Zealand-specific information written about the situation she and Brian were in. The second, How to Communicate with Someone Who Has Dementia, was the same.
Both books drew from research and what Caughey learned as she muddled along, working out how best to look after not only Brian but herself.
“I’m a patient person and when he was just being odd I would let him be odd. You just go along with it.”
The pair worked as a team throughout Brian’s dementia, and he was keen for her to write the books.
“He said lets tell everyone because other people will get it.”
The latest book, In A Better Brain for Life, uses the most up-to-date research to show how to foster a healthy brain, ward off common chronic diseases, and prevent, or at least slow down, the brain’s decline.
While there is a gene that minimally increases the chance of a person developing dementia, lifestyle changes and healthy living can ward off the syndrome. Smoking and heavy drinking are out, and it’s never too late to ditch our vices and let the brain start to repair.
“NZ looks on alcohol as something to imbibe as often as possible whereas in the 1930s if a man called on another man he’d be offered a cup of tea.”
Nearly half of dementia cases in New Zealand are potentially preventable if 12 risk factors for the syndrome are completely eliminated. Those are less education, hypertension, obesity, hearing loss, smoking, depression, physical inactivity, social isolation, diabetes, alcohol, air pollution and traumatic brain injury.
If you’re thinking Caughey is some sort of joyless teetotaller, you’re wrong.
“I still drink, thank you every much. I have a wine with my dinner every few nights, sometimes I have two wines. Brian and I set out once to intoxicate me, but we chose sherry, and it didn’t work.”
Brian was healthy and active, but other factors made him a sitting duck for the disease, she says.
“He was a wonderful sport, a lovely husband, but he had had football knocks and did a lot of weed- spraying. He was really made for something to react.”
It’s that sort of environmental and social impact on the brain that fascinates Caughey who says she’s had a lucky life.
Born in 1930, she grew up in Remuera during The Depression, something she says has coloured her whole life and made her grateful for everything she has.
The youngest of five children, her family did it tough.
“When the elastic in my pants gave out I would get a safety pin. I would have opened three bottles of fizzy drink in a year at the most. We had tramps coming down the driveway seeking a piece of bread.”
While she and her siblings made their own fun, it was a childhood marred by her mother’s occasional alcoholic binges as she struggled to cope with stress.
“My parents would just say things had got on top of her. Isn’t that wise?”
Three of her brothers went to fight in the Second World War where two of them were killed, and the other reported missing. The family didn’t hear word of him for 70 years, when in 2016 Caughey received a phonecall from a stranger telling her where he was lying in an unmarked grave in Brittany.
She says she was too old to travel overseas by herself and when she asked her family if anyone would accompany her they all did.
“The town put on a memorial service. It was very moving, all these years later I get quite emotional when I think of it.”
As for the writing, she took her time to get there. Although an English teacher told her she’d be an author, Caughey was no great shakes as a student, describing herself as the original university dropout. She got a job as a pre-school assistant but gave it up when she was 21 and her mum died, to take on the task of looking after the house, her dad, and the garden.
She and Brian had three children, and she worked for marriage guidance, eventually undertaking a degree at Massey University when she was 40 and completing it five years later.
“That’s what started me writing. I began to assemble my thoughts and put them down logically.”
At 92, Caughey is obviously still writing and showing no sign of the condition almost 70,000 Kiwis are currently living with.
She’s going through the normal ageing process, not worrying if she forgets the occasional word or somebody’s name because that’s utterly normal. She future-proofs her own brain by always learning something new – recently it was mastering singing the national anthem in te reo Māori – enjoying it, and passing it on.
She keeps active with bowls and walking up those steep hills. She climbed One Tree Hill last week, a goal she’s been working on for a while.
“I’m always pushing myself because it’s so satisfying to think “now I can go to bed”. I’m not remarkable, I’m a selfish person who keeps on doing the things I want to do.”
And while the ageing process makes life different, growing older is a marvellous thing which is why she hopes we’ll take on some advice to keep ourselves healthy.
“I don’t make so many these days and life is so much more pleasurable when you’re not blushing and cringing and apologising.
“Society causes you to give a shit but once you’re over 40 you stop. You’re not finished being, you go on growing, you just don’t care so much.”
As for what’s next for Caughey now she’s completed her third book on dementia? More writing, walking and doing what she wants.
“I’m going back to work on the book I wrote a long time ago about our west highland terrier. It’s quite good but my grandson said it needs more description.”