She used to visit us in waves. We wouldnt see her for a few weeks, then it would be up to three times a day, every day, for a week. First, it was pencils, so she became known as The Pencil Woman.
She would ask us each time if we sold pencils. We would reply that we didn't. She would smile a lovely, lopsided grin, and say oh yes she remembered now, silly her.
One day a rep came round, and in his catalogue we noticed some pencils. We ordered them in.
She came in and asked for pencils. We told her that yes, we did have some in stock now. We sold her one, and off she went.
She came back the next day, and asked if we sold pencils. We must have looked a bit confused, as we knew we had told her where they were yesterday.
"Oh yes, I remember now. I bought a pencil, but you see, its my son. He's an artist and he draws all the time, and he had ran out of pencils so I gave him mine. Now I need a pencil."
This started happening a lot. Always the same story. We laughed about it because we didn't know what else to do.
The next time we saw her was about three weeks later. She asked if we sold reading glasses. We showed her where they were, on the counter. She selected some, paid her 99p, and off she went. She came back the next day and asked if we sold glasses.
"Oh yes, I know I just bought some, but you see its my son. He needs glasses for when he is drawing, and he has taken my pair because he lost his. So now I need another pair. "
She would sometimes return just an hour later, and say exactly the same. She would come in when we were really busy with prescriptions, and sometimes we would be impatient with her.
One morning, we sold her a pink, flowery pair of glasses, joking that her son wouldn't want to steal those ones. She was back in for more in the afternoon.
There were various other sundries that she cycled through.
Then one day she asked for aspirin. I asked her all the questions, and she Said she wasn't taking any other medicines etc. She said she just like to keep them in the house in case she got a headache. So I sold her them.
The next day she came in and asked for aspirin.
"Well its my son you see. He had a headache too (probably because he does so much drawing) so he took the pack of aspirin to work with him so now I need one for me."
The same thing happened over and over again. I tried to question her more and more, but without accusing her of lying I couldn't get anywhere. I tried to have long chats with her, to find out her name, and who her doctor was. She told me she wasn't registered with a doctor and she didn't like going to see them.
I was worried. She was obviously forgetting that she had bought aspirin, and buying more. The son was a clever cover story, for the times when she could see the pity in our faces. One day, she came in for aspirin again and I saw a large bruise on her hand. She said she didn't know where it had come from, it just appeared one day. I asked her to promise me that she would see a doctor. She held my hand and said she would and how sweet I was.
If she was forgetting that she had bought the aspirin, was she forgetting when she had taken the aspirin. Was the bruising because she was bleeding because of taking too much aspirin?
I asked our delivery driver to ask around when he was out and about, to see if anyone knew her. We asked in the local shop and pub if anyone knew her name or address so I could look her up on our records and see who her doctor was. No luck. Everyone knew her, but no one knew her name.
One day, a woman came in with some medi-boxes that had been dispensed from another pharmacy. She said she had found them in her mum's house, but her mum had plenty of boxes, so could we dispose of them. I did so, and just happened to glance at what was in there. It was some Alzheimer's drugs. I didn't think anything else of it.
The same woman rang the pharmacy a few days later, to ask something about her health. She said she was feeling really run down, as she was finding it hard to work full time and look after her mother who had dementia. Something clicked, and I asked her to describe her mother to me. It might have sounded like an odd question to her, but she described the pencil woman. What happened next might have been a breach in confidentiality, but I told her about the aspirin, and the bruising, and how I had been worried about selling it. I figured yes, I had broken confidentiality, but the pencil woman was in danger if I didn't.
Her daughter told me the story. It started with tins of soup. She had cupboards and cupboards full. Then it was loaves of bread, which went mouldy, and the daughter had to clean out her whole kitchen. There were tears, and I had absolutely no idea what the right words to say were.
We still used to see her. When she came in to ask for aspirin, I told her that her daughter had been in to get her some and would see her later. I had agreed this line with her daughter. It was a little white lie that saved her from more embarrassment, and kept her a little safer.
I still think about her a lot, especially now my own Grandma is approaching the upper end of the moderate stage of Alzheimers. I think of all the times we were impatient, or didn't have time to stop and chat. I wonder what her story was, and what she had done when she was younger. I wonder about all the tales she might have had to tell, and how many of them are lost.
I wonder where she is now, if she is still alive. I wonder how her son and daughter are coping.
I think of the embarrassment and terror in her eyes when she was telling us about how its her son, you see.
Today is Dementia Awareness Day. I think of The Pencil Woman.