She looked so small and frail as she stood at the counter in a shop. A lady with undoubted style, judging by her jewellery.

While waiting behind her in a queue to be served, I noted her difficulty in making herself understood to a very young retail assistant. English was obviously not her first language. She became conscious of the build-up of people behind her and decided to move on, exasperated that she hadn’t been able to satisfy her requirements.

A little later I saw her again, elsewhere in the shopping mall, moving slowly with her walking aid as a support.

I made my way to a coffee shop and saw her enter. Our eyes met as she scanned the room looking for a spare table. There weren’t any and I beckoned her to join me. She happily did so and we struck-up a conversation.

She revealed that she was a widow (originally from Poland). She and her late husband had come to Australia following World War II to make a new life together. She had a son who lived overseas with his young family. She didn’t see them very often. Her husband had died some years ago and she missed him terribly.

Even though her English wasn’t good she made herself understood and I grasped the emotion she was displaying. She had been a ballerina in her native country and her husband was a musician in the accompanying orchestra. It seemed their lifelong partnership was meant to be.

This lady was warm and engaging but stoic to boot. She was from a generation who did it tough and she was a survivor.

Her name was Anna, she said, and she was generous in her appreciation of an ear to listen and seemed genuinely buoyed by the opportunity. The feeling was mutual.

At that moment two women approached… both with serious expressions. They walked up to the table and immediately castigated Anna for wandering from her “home”. Home for Anna was a local hostel for people who suffered dementia. The women explained that Anna often “wandered” to the local shopping precinct and it had become a nuisance for staff to have to collect her and take her back.

It was a sobering moment. I had no sense during our conversation that Anna was anything other than a lonely elderly lady keen to have a chat and share precious memories. Seeing her being led away like a naughty child was demeaning and I was deeply upset.

Later I reflected on this chance meeting and how it had affected us both, for different reasons. How easy it is to judge someone from appearances, only to discover the real person, when the layers are exposed to reveal who they really are?

Dementia is an insidious disease and takes many shapes. Do we treat those who are afflicted in an appropriate way? Are we too ready to “discard” people to institutions because they are a nuisance? Does institutionalising them in the early stages of the disease actually accentuate the symptoms? So many questions… too few answers.

These days we hear a lot about anxiety and depression and more often than in the past… suicide. By comparison, there seems less emphasis on dementia in its various forms.

I wonder, will Anna remember our chance meeting and conversation? I would like to think she will. Unwittingly she brought an awareness to me regarding dementia, one that would never have happened had she remained behind closed doors.

David Corduff