Friday, December 8, 2023

Does She Know It’s Mother’s Day? Dementia at the Time of a Pandemic

Dealing with the fact your mum has dementia is hard on any given day. But as guest writer Vanessa Marshall tells, she’s comforted by the fact her mother has no idea what’s going on in the world – even if it’s a tough pill to swallow.

Imagine a world with no Covid-19. Where New Zealand is more famous for being nuclear-free than virus free. Where milk costs less than a dollar, is delivered in chilled glass bottles at the end of the driveway and you can buy it at the supermarket with a cheque that is still legal tender.

My mother doesn’t need to imagine this. In the clutches of dementia, this is her day-to-day reality. No soft-focus, retro filter needed. Everything she sees is so firmly coloured by the past she is protected from coronavirus not only by her physical distancing but by the isolation of her mind.

Of course she’s not actually protected. At seventy-plus she’s still in the high-risk category, but like a lot of other Kiwis who Zoom or House Party or Skype their mums this Mother’s Day, for the first time since this disease stole her from us I am comforted rather than frightened that she has no idea of what is really going on in the world right now.

Yes, I still worry she’s eating enough. That the house where she’s cared for by my father has enough firewood to keep them cosy. That she’s taken her pills and drunk enough water. She won’t actually know that it’s a day for celebration because she forgets Christmas and birthdays and I think you get the picture. But I will still tell her I love her and I am grateful for everything she did for me. I don’t need a special day to know how much I owe her.

As a teenager I suffered from Lilliputian hallucinations, aka ‘Alice in Wonderland’ syndrome. I would wake in the night and believe I was either way too big or so infinitesimally tiny I couldn’t reach the door handle. It doesn’t take a psychology degree to see I was suffering from distorted emotions. I think I still do.

Back then, I would call to my mum and she would return me to bed, stroke my forehead, sing me a lullaby and sit with me until I had settled back into a soft comfortable ball. As an adult I still have moments where I feel the wrong shape or size but I no longer have my mum to knead me back into position.

Because much like the pandemic sweeping the globe, dementia does not discriminate. It takes your loved ones and hides them in plain sight. Conversations are draining. Talking to mum is like conversing with fog. It’s like watching a film with the picture in focus but the sound is dubbed and in the completely wrong language. The tone is too sharp, the inflection too harsh and more often than not the words and the actions aren’t properly in sync.

My mum was a babe. And then she wasn’t. Gone are the crisp shirts, the fitted blazers, the perfect jeans and in their place saggy track pants. Stained t-shirts reproduce in the back of her wardrobe. As fast as we throw them out another set appears. I have no idea where she finds them. I have no idea why she does a lot of things that she does.

But then, a rare instant arrives where the skies clear and Mum’s beautiful blue eyes are focused and bright. We shared one of these moments the Saturday before lockdown as we drove into the Purewa cemetery to put cut flowers on my grandmother’s grave.

The prime minister is on the radio in her first address to the nation.

“We are at alert level two.” Jacinda’s voice is so soothing and maternal I look across at Mum and even though she is right there, I miss her so deeply I start to cry.

 “That sounds serious,” she says, as we drive slowly past a funeral procession heading into the All Saints Chapel. “Why is everyone wearing a face mask?”

I have to move fast as Mum rarely takes in what is going on around her and her lucidity only lasts minutes.

 “There is a bad flu going around,” I say. “After today I won’t be able see you for a while until everyone gets better.”

She looks down at the flowers in her lap then back out across the gravestones. I reach out and squeeze her hand trying to hold onto her for  just a few more glorious seconds.

“OK then,” she says, the blue of her eyes fading to grey. “We better get some milk then before we head back.” She rummages around in her handbag. “Just let me find my chequebook.”

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