Being close to a person living with dementia really does mess up your emotions. That sounds selfish – I’m not the one who’s been cut adrift from family and friends – but as discussed before, tears and smiles often go hand in hand when you’re a carer, even a long-distance carer.
I’ve just arrived home after seeing Mum. It was her birthday yesterday – 77 since you ask (I’m sure she won’t mind me sharing her age) – and I took her a present and card. She’d received plenty of cards in the post and last week, had enjoyed a visit from two of her oldest friends, Mal and Chris. It’s a friendship which goes back more than 70 years and now there’s a photo by the door of the new family room, in which we were sitting, to mark it. The new room is designed like a sitting room at home – another thoughtful touch from people who really care. I handed Mum her card and present and she stared at them. After some gentle encouragement, she opened the envelope and took out the card. “Happy Birthday to the most marvellous Mum” it proudly declared.
“That’s odd,” said Mum.
“It’s from Mary and me.”
“For your birthday.”
“Oh, I see.”
She then put the card back into the envelope and placed it back on her lap. A few minutes later, she looked down:
“I don’t know what that’s still doing there.”
“It’s your birthday present Mum. Why don’t you open it?”
So she did. She opened the card again, looked at it but not inside it, and then put it back in the envelope…again.
“What about the present? Shall we open that as well?”
After a small tussle with the sellotape (other adhesives are available), she carefully opened one end and promptly put the present aside. After some encouragement, she opened the other end as well, again with the utmost care. Some things remain it seems. As children we were never allowed to tear open our presents. Mum always had an eye on re-using the wrapping paper. After both ends were free of the sticky stuff, she stopped, leaving the paper still wrapped around the box of chocolates. (Damn, I’ve spoiled the surprise). I hate taking over in situations like this but this time I did, and tore the paper asunder to show her the assortment inside.
“Would you like one, Mum?”
“I suppose so.”
I started to read the menu, or I would have done if I hadn’t left my glasses in the car. So I guessed some and made up others. Talk about the blind leading the blind. I chose a coffee creme for her but while this was going on, I noticed Mum was transfixed by the wrapping paper which was festooned with circles of different colours. She was pressing each circle in turn, seemingly unaware of my presence anymore. I watched her and my heart broke. My lovely, wonderful, proud Mum celebrating her birthday by pressing imaginary buttons on a torn piece of wrapping paper. My friend Tommy says dementia will break your heart and he’s right, it will.
And so, with tears not far away, I turned – as always – to music and the afternoon took a turn for the better. We sang, our usual repertoire, and smiled and laughed. Mum closed her eyes and looked down to the ground but continued to nod and fairly shouted out the words:
“Consider Yourself/One of Us.”
There we were again, the link restored between mother and son. Smiles following tears, tears following smiles. After we’d performed our full setlist, without an encore today, Mum reached into the envelope containing her birthday card and pulled out…the coffee creme:
“I don’t know what this is. It’s a funny thing.”
After a little cajoling, she finally ate the chocolate without comment. I left soon afterwards with Mum preparing to play a game of bagatelle. My visit had possibly been forgotten before I reached the front door but the feelings, the smiles and the laughter, hopefully remained with Mum for a good while longer.
Happy birthday Mum. May you have many more.