Metro column 7

Richard Herring: Alzheimer's disease is heartbreaking but it can be funny

Richard Herring pays tribute to his gran, who found a toyboy at 80 and provided him with the funniest moment of his life.

My Grandma, Doris Hannan, turns 101 next week. She is the perfect gran.

When we were young, she was full of hugs, jokes and smiles, made us puddings and wiped our faces with spit on her hankie. She even saved my life when I was four and choking on 15 Fruit Pastilles that I had stuffed into my mouth simultaneously. She upended me and shook me until the clump of sugary, salivary mush slid out of my oesophagus.

You might argue that she nearly killed me by giving me a whole pack of sweets without anticipating what would happen but still… good save!

She’s had a tough life: working-class, living in a tiny terraced house in Middlesbrough, never having much, never complaining, caring for her family, looking out for her neighbours, always putting everyone else first and herself last.

When my grandad died, Doris was nearly 80. Others might assume her days of romance were over but there was life in the old girl yet. And I guess she was an attractive woman to old men, because dozens of geriatrics came crawling out of the woodwork, like some more terrifying, Middlesbrough-based version of the Thriller video.

She made the most of it before settling down with her toyboy, Ken. He was only 70! Cradle-snatcher!

Through her nineties, it became increasingly apparent that Grandma had Alzheimer’s disease. She forgot us all one by one. In 2009, my parents celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. Doris was there, in a wheelchair, surrounded by all her loved ones, not recognising any of us. It’s heartbreaking to see that happen to someone you love. But it can be funny as well.

Listen, it’s my job to try and come up with the funniest thing possible. Which is a shame, because I’d always believed the funniest thing that can possibly happen is a fat woman falling out a hammock.

It turns out I was wrong. That’s not the funniest thing, because the funniest thing ever happened at this party. My sister had bought an enormous party popper, designed to shoot glitter over a 30m radius. My parents were cutting the cake and I could see my sister readying to fire but nothing was happening. As she examined it to see what was wrong, it exploded into the face of my grandma, 3ft away, in her wheelchair, hitting her and nothing else, covering her from head to foot in glitter.

That’s funnier than a fat woman falling out of a hammock. A 98-year-old woman, in a wheelchair, with Alzheimer’s disease, being coated in glitter.

It was the surprise on her face, followed by the most complete look of confusion you have ever seen – ‘Where am I? Who are all these people? Why am I covered in glitter?’

We checked she was OK and tidied her up quickly. We felt terrible. It was brilliant.

Last Christmas, we went to visit Doris in her home. My mum was sewing a name tag into one of her vests and said: ‘Can you read that, Mam?’ ‘Doris Hannan,’ read Doris.

‘Do you know who that is?’ My gran paused for a moment and then, with perfect timing, said: ‘I can’t think of another one.’

Still joking. Still funny. And she was right. She’s the one and only.

Happy birthday, Doris.

Richard Herring is currently touring Britain with his show, What Is Love, Anyway?

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