My mother reads out the list she’s made of the aches and ailments she expects the psycho-geriatrician to fix. She wants to be back playing golf, playing bowls and cards, physically able and mentally agile; not nearly ninety, frail and failing. The discomforts and infirmities of old age are not acceptable.
I put on my best version of patience, pulling it over my head like a scratchy sweater, tight-fitting especially round the chest and shoulders. It sits uncomfortably and I’m wearied already though the phone call has just begun. I complain to my sister later that Mum doesn’t seem to have prepared herself for aging at all. Growing old gracefully isn’t apparently in her vocabulary. Whereas I am determined to do just that, and elegantly too. But then, Mum’s lack of realism could be part of what we think is encroaching dementia. I must try for compassion and understanding. After all, more than a fifth of 85 to 89 year olds have dementia, and more women than men in that age group.
.”Yep, that seems like everything,” I say into the phone, ‘but what about the memory loss?”
“I suppose. It varies. Some days are worse than others. I’ll get Trish to add it.”
She’s forgotten that the forthcoming appointment was triggered by a mini mental-state test at the local doctors. I’d arranged an appointment, not broaching the subject until I visited from out of town, expecting a telling off or even a refusal to go, but she submitted like a child. It’s frightening, this descent into second childhood, where social learning seeps away and the toddler re-emerges, self-absorbed, helpless and needy. Each time my sister Trish leaves after one of her frequent visits, Mum is tearful and asks Trish when she’ll be back. Sometimes there are tantrums.
It fits with what I’ve been reading about the symptoms of age-related dementia: impaired judgment – refusing to use the walker that’s been provided and insisting she can catch a bus to the local shopping centre despite frequent falls as she totters around; loss of memory – she no longer remembers recent visits, the names of her grandchildren, or how to use the remote control to change channels; and the sometimes childish behaviour that Trish bears the brunt of. We’re relying on the assessment by the psycho-geriatrician to help us justify to ourselves, and to Mum, that she must move to where she has more support. Her respect for authority is deeply embedded; what the doctor says, she will do, albeit reluctantly with mutters and grumbles.
The pressure on Trish has built gradually over the last few years as she does her utmost to let Mum keep her independence. Trish is stressed beyond words, brittle and sometimes impatient under the strain of her husband’s expectations and Mum’s demands on her time. Trish can’t see the need to talk to her own GP, but when she does her blood pressure is sky-high – acute hypertension. She’s at serious risk of a stroke and forbidden to drive until medication brings it down.
It’s only a few weeks since Mum’s lawyer decided she was legally competent in the morning but not in the afternoon. Besides the question of whether lawyers have the training to make that kind of judgement, I start to wonder whether I’m already on that path. Even now I notice I’m mentally fresh and clear in the morning, the day full of promise; sluggish and slow by late afternoon, toiling through dinner and dishes before the relief and comfort of the sofa. Dragging through the days, confused and bewildered, a drained and diminished, increasingly unrecognisable version of the person that was, losing pieces of oneself till the final disintegration, is a cruel way for this life to end.
The phone call falters on to an end. It’s like the way Mum moves now, clutching at surfaces for balance; it’s a metaphor for life. Mum asks, “What was the thing I was going to add to the list?”
I forget my restraint; there’s the sound of torn seams as the constricting sweater stretches, and I give a half laugh saying, “That could be a joke!” But I hear a disconcerted silence. I check mysef, immediately remorseful, and soften my tone.
“It was memory loss,” I say
“Ah, I’ll go and tell Trish to write it down straight away. Goodbye,” and she rushes away, anxiety rippling down the line.