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Last week I sent out a plea on Twitter for some podcast recommendations. I got a handful of suggestions, much of them music related but there were a few that were not and of these, Radiolab (suggested by Anthony from God Don’t Like It) was an instant winner.

Radiolab is an American radio show that airs all over the country and tackles both big and not so big issues in the realms of science and philosophy – I use these descriptive words because they use them on their ‘About’ page, although I understand that those titles can be off-putting sometimes. To me, the show is more about the exploration of a whole range of ideas, and each podcast usually begins with somebody, whether it be an expert in a particular area, or just an ordinary person, telling a story. The stories are always fascinating and told with great interest and spirit and often humour as well, and afterwards a question might be posed or more research is conducted and further ideas explored, and I am yet to come across an episode that hasn’t captivated me in some way.

I think I listened to half a dozen of them today (some go for an hour, but they also produce episodes they call ‘Shorts’ which are usually between 15 and 20 minutes long) and by far my favourite was one that aired back in March last year, called The Bus Stop. It begins with one of the producers of the show talking about her grandpa and how he’d begun to display signs of Alzheimer’s, and he’d gotten to the point where he’d started to wander off a lot.

This story lead to a discussion of a nursing home in Germany whose residents were predominantly suffering from Alzheimer’s as well, and a lot of them would frequently escape from the building and turn up in all kinds of places in town when the staff managed to track them down. Upon being asked what they were doing and why they had left, there was usually a great sense of urgency – they had to mail a letter, their husband was waiting for them, they had to pick up their son from school, they were late for an appointment. Much of the time they were reliving events from their past as well of course – their husband had actually died ten years ago or their son was now an adult with children of his own.

The nursing home staff realised of course that this situation couldn’t continue and they were at the point where they thought that the only solution was to lock the ward so that the residents couldn’t wander off any more. This is understandable in terms of keeping the residents safe, but heartbreaking and I guess pretty cruel as well. Just as they were about to put locks and barriers in place, somebody (I forget who) came up with the idea of placing a bus stop near the entrance to the nursing home – a bus stop to which a bus would never actually come. This idea was met with a bit of skepticism, but they figured there was nothing to lose, so they gave it a shot. A couple of days after, the staff noticed one of their residents were missing and sure enough, there she was, sitting at the bus stop just outside the entrance to the nursing home.

When a nurse went down to talk to her, she said she was waiting for the bus and if I remember correctly, she was quite agitated in the beginning, very eager to get to her destination, but the longer she waited the calmer she became and eventually she forgot why she was there and happily went back with the nurse when she suggested a cup of tea.

This situation was repeated again and again whenever a resident got the wanders, and most of the time, the bus stop was as far as they got. Now some people would say, and did in the podcast, that the staff are essentially lying to the residents, or tricking them. They’re providing a bus stop with no bus, and just waiting for them to ‘forget’, for the disease to kinda do their work for them, I guess. I don’t see it that way though. What’s the alternative? Locking them up and taking away the little freedom they have left? This way they’re able to go where they like, and if that means they only get as far as the bus stop outside, well surely that’s much safer than the alternative?

Have a listen. I think you might like the part too when the woman telling the story added that many locals were also found to be waiting at the ‘new’ bus stop, and had to be informed by staff that they could wait all they liked, but the bus would never arrive!

I also really liked a comment that somebody left on the blog, about the bus stop being a bridge between the ‘real world’ and the world going on inside the resident’s heads. I thought that was a really lovely idea.

Other Radiolab shows that I liked include The Walls Of Jericho, which endeavours to find out how many trumpeters it would take to actually knock down the Walls of Jericho. The Bible says seven, the answer is somewhat different! This proved to be quite the controversial episode actually – I just thought it was a bit of fun, an entertaining exploration of the Biblical story but judging by the comments on the accompanying blog, not everybody was of the same opinion!

A couple of other episodes I enjoyed were Vanishing Words, a discussion about Agatha Christie and how her 73rd novel demonstrates a dramatic fall in the sophistication of her vocabulary and ideas, and how scientists believe this indicates the first signs of dementia. Killing Babies, Saving The World (the title makes me cringe too, don’t worry) involves a moral dilemma that I found very interesting and chilling and confronting all at the same time.

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