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Cups of tea

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This is a fun subject but also an important social ritual. The dried leaves of Camellia sinensis infused with very hot water make a delicious drink, as we all know. Tea has both a long history and plenty of cultural aspects (see a couple of books listed below, but there are others). I have just downed a large mug of Earl Grey as I sat down to start typing this.

Tea and dementia has already featured in the wonderful blog written by Marianne Scotland for Dementia Day to Day last year (“I’d love a cup of tea.” | IDEA (nottingham.ac.uk).  Marianne gently and humorously described how a hospital patient with dementia kept asking her for a cup of tea, even though she never got round to drinking it. The subject also cropped up in discussion with one of our postgraduate students who mentioned in passing how she had always accepted the offer of a cup of tea when she visited participants to conduct research interviews. I commented in an aside how this was potentially brave and maybe it depends on who is making the tea.

It set me thinking about cups of tea that I have been offered over time, usually related to home visits I have made for clinical purposes. There are a few possibilities here. One is that you don’t get offered a cup of tea at all. Often this is quite understandable, since the person has dementia and may struggle to make themselves a cup of tea, let alone one for a guest. Or maybe the kitchen is untidy or even, in some cases, frankly squalid. In one house, the only part of the house that was halfway fit to enter was the kitchen and there were at least a dozen cats in there. Apart from cat food, there wasn’t much else in the way of provisions. No tea there, then.

Another quite common occurrence is that you get to the end of your consultation and are just packing up to go to the next appointment, when the patient pipes up with, ‘Oh, doctor, I never offered you a cup of tea! Would you like one?’ This is partly courtesy but also you feel they are trying to keep you there longer as they may be lonely. Sometimes, there are other members of the family present when you visit. Statistically, this is most likely to be a spouse or an adult son or (more often) daughter. If they offer you a cup of tea at the beginning of the visit, this may be very welcome. Hopefully the quality will be OK.

Two beverages stick in my mind especially though technically I think they were meant to be coffee. One was in a house where we had just completed a Mental Health Act assessment and we were waiting for an ambulance to convey the resident to the hospital. In the awkward period while the social worker and I were waiting with the lady, she offered to make a hot drink. Whatever it was, it was undrinkable. There was a lot of solid residue in the bottom of the mug, which could have been earth. We tactfully put the drink to one side and carried on waiting…

The winner however was not a person with dementia but actually a dementia researcher. They had invited me to visit their office which was in a brain bank laboratory, so full of microscopes, little tubes, fridges and the usual equipment. My colleague took two indescribable mugs off the window sill, threw the liquid at the bottom down the sink, tipped instant coffee into each without a spoon, and filled the cups from the hot tap, on the basis that this meant we could consume the coffee quicker without it being too hot. I couldn’t help wondering if there might be fragments of brain tissue or reagents mixed up with it all. I sipped politely.

The take home message? Love drinking tea as a social exercise but have some standards!


A Brief History of Tea by Roy Moxham. Robinson, 2009.

The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura. First published 1906, but available in Penguin Classics, 2010.


Marianne Scotland & Emma Putland.


Tom Dening

15th September 2021


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