My mum is 90 this year, which is not so newsworthy as it would have been when I was a kid, but an achievement all the same. Or perhaps I should say that I know an old lady who will be 90 this year: the extent to which she is still my mum is what has prompted this post. She’s just spent 2 weeks with us in France, and it’s the longest uninterrupted time I’ve spent with her for several years. The standard “overnighter” doesn’t reveal the same degree of decline, or highlight it with quite such ruthless contours.
She was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about 18 months ago, but it’s clear that the disease had been wreaking its particular havoc for a long time before that. There are of course many sufferers much more severely affected than my mum; she still knows who I am, and most other people if she’s known them long enough. But her ability to recall trivial things over more than a few minutes is seriously compromised.
“Now, where am I?”
“In France, mum.”
“France? But how did I get here? I haven’t told anyone I’m going away, you know.”
“Don’t worry, mum, you did! Everything’s OK.”
“Well, I think someone could have told me what was happening!”
“Mum, we did. We’ve been planning this with you for 4 months!”
And so on. Along with going to the loo every half an hour, and every time having to ask where it is. All mixed in with random things that have somehow lodged in her memory, such as the appointment with the dentist that my brother is supposed to have made for her back in England, and which she is forever hoping he’s not forgotten to do.
Although the constant questions about the same things, the repeated panicking that she’s brought no clothes with her, the permanent apology for “being in the way”, which she isn’t, can all become wearing after a while, it’s not that which really matters or concerns. The really dispiriting and emotionally draining aspect is reflecting on what all this confusion must be like for her. It’s hard to imagine how it must feel to be so continually and totally disorientated. If I simply can’t remember the most apposite word for some thing or situation it drives me to distraction until I’ve recalled it, but that is as nothing compared to this. The frustration and terror must be unendurable.
On Monday I arrived with mum at the pre-arranged meeting place where my brother was to collect her and take her back to Lincolnshire. As she goes off with him, she turns to me and says, “Thanks so much for the lovely weekend!” My brother and I look at each other and shrug. What else can we do?