Age. There is a demographic thing happening and we are in it.
Ten million people in the UK are over 65 years old. The latest projections are for 5.5 million more ‘elderly’ in 20 years, and around 19 million by 2050.
I can’t hold these statistics in my head. I can only balance the fact of friends who have died in their forties and fifties against the phenomenon of a mother who is 91, and an uncle who is nearly 89. My dad died in 1987, at the age I am now.
So when my 91-year-old mother had a bad fall three weeks ago, it seemed almost attention-seeking to make a fuss. My sister and I had each other, and our partners and children, and our own reserves of health and strength. We were coping fine with the hospital visits. And mum has had a good, long life. And yet.
She also has that illness you now hear so much about: Alzheimer’s Dementia. This meant she didn’t remember the circumstances of the fall, and didn’t understand why she was in hospital, more confused than usual, and in pain from the terrible bruising and broken wrist. She was frightened. She was frightened in much the same way my granddaughter might have been. My mother wanted her mum.
It’s not uncommon in people with dementia to ask for their mothers. Nor is it as tragic as it sounds, because although these mothers are long dead, that fact has been forgotten. It seems the missing mothers are simply detained somewhere; they may arrive at any moment. In fact, if someone hugs the confused person who is looking for her mother – even she is hugged by one of her own daughters – she may feel that daughter is her mother, and be comforted.
By some odd synchronicity, mum’s crisis co-incided with the publication of Paula Jennings’ Under a Spell Place, a sequence of poems in the voice of a woman with dementia who communicates in a way that is both rich and strange. And that’s what happens with this illness. Our brains – even when damaged – make extraordinary creative leaps of communication. My mother, who was doped up to the eyeballs with analgesia, said ‘I’ve lost me. Help me find me.’
I don’t mean to write about this in a tear-jerking way. Mum was simply being accurate: that is how it feels. And she has recovered her ‘self’ for the time being, through the affectionate and supportive care of nursing staff, family and carers. Soon she was mischievous and funny again. When offered painkillers, she said, ‘No thank you. The pain is killed.’ And to me, ‘This will be you one day, you know.’
It is not a tragedy. It is just another thing that happens to us, and the chances are greater the longer we live: the brain going AWOL, the confusion and the absurdity, and the loving reassurance that mysteriously arrives from unexpected quarters.
All of this is in Paula’s Under a Spell Place, and it was in my life too last week. ‘You’re going to have to drink quite a lot of tea,’ says the poem. And I did. ‘It can be really delicate to get there / and come back again.’ Indeed.
Our mother is unlikely to go back to the house where she was living before the fall. It’s time for her to live with other people in a safer environment. A ‘home’, yes. So my sister and I started to sort out papers that she now can’t sort out for herself.
She used to write a lot: stories, poems, quotations copied from here and there. In her honour, here is one of the faded scraps we came across. I think she wrote it herself, a long time ago (it is certainly typed out by her on her old typewriter, with a couple of pencil corrections in her own hand) but I don’t know at what age, or why, or what the context was. Only that there was undoubtedly a context, and when my sister and I found it, we were moved.
Our mother was once good at telling her own story. I should perhaps add that she was, for many years, a primary teacher and read stories to hundreds of children in her time. Here, in her own words, is a bit of her. What are we, after all, but bits of stories, told and untold?
by Kathleen Curry
When he saw the shining gift of Love he became angry, and refused to accept it. At first the girl could not believe it, but at last she saw the coldness in his eyes and sadly she took her gift home again.
For several years it lay on the shelf, and every time she looked at it she felt a great ache in her heart. Then one day there was a knock at her door – he had come back! This time she could see he needed the gift even more desperately, and with light feet she ran to get it and placed it in his arms. When he had gone away with it, she felt greater joy than she had ever felt in her life before. The day seemed full of sunshine, and nothing was an effort to her.
For two weeks she felt life was wonderful, and then it happened. She found her lovely gift left on her doorstep, with a little note to say he had decided not to keep it, as it was rather a bother to look after. ‘I expect that I shall be able to find enough old bits of love lying around to keep me going,’ he wrote.
She thought her heart would break. She laid the gift back on its shelf, but she could hardly bear to look at it. At last she decided it was a pity to waste such a wonderful gift, so she took a sharp knife and cut it into sixty pieces. She gave the pieces to sixty children she knew, and they each took it out into the world with them where it grew and spread, and shed its own special warmth.
As for the girl, once the gift had been given away for good she felt at peace. The great joy she had once known never came back, but in a quiet way she was just about as happy as people ever are.