Mum lives with my sister and brother, both of whom are unmarried and thus share a home. Dad died in 1987, and Mum never remarried. We tried to encourage her to do so, but she was not interested. She said she enjoyed her freedom and independence.
Then Mum took early retirement from teaching and began a life of jetting between Singapore and Scotland to visit us. She was in Scotland when our eldest was born. She helped to look after him so that I could continue working; and was in Scotland when our second child was born and helped to look after him too. Mum was fantastic with the boys, and truly enjoyed the hectic time they gave her, bringing smiles as well as exasperation to her life as only young children can do.
Then we moved to Cumbria because of work, to take up the running of Blenheim Lodge in 2002. This was when we noticed that Mum seemed to crumble. Her usual busyness with the children had kept her going for years, while she looked after their every need. Now, she had only herself to take care of, and it did not suit her at all.
In 2001, we had observed that her memory was not quite was it used to be, although we had had no inkling that she had developed Alzheimer’s Disease. The diagnosis came in 2002, and what a blow it was! Mum, ever brave, took it on the chin and never complained. We think that the mental and physical stimulation she had whilst looking after the kids had kept her strong, and one would never have thought that she was suffering from such a debilitating disease. Conversely, we felt that the removal of that same stimulation caused her mind to collapse on itself because it now had no need to work as hard.
For years, one would not have known that Mum had Alzheimer’s unless one knew her well. In fact, unless you knew that she had the disease, and knew what to look out for, it would have been impossible to tell. Of course family members who knew her well were able to compare her previous abilities to her current capabilities, and so could tell that her mind was deteriorating.
Mum is now in her 10th year after having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She has her good days and her bad days, and has lost much of her vocabulary and ability to take even simple care of herself. Actions we take for granted, such as making a sandwich or drink, have been beyond her capabilities now for some years. We caught her eating raw pasta once because she was hungry; she did not realise that she could not eat uncooked pasta.
This week, Mum visited us in Cumbria. The last time Mum was here had been Christmas, when my sister and brother had also come to stay. At that time, she knew what it meant when I asked her if she needed the loo. Now, she does not understand the same phrase. She did not even grasp the concept when I asked her the same thing in a few different ways and languages. I was gutted! Such a basic human activity and she had no idea what I meant – she only looked blankly at me.
My sister, who is a saint where Mum is concerned, gets agitated when bathing her. Whenever I am around, I take over this activity as Mum can either be a terror to wash or as good as gold. A difficult Mum would include shouting the house down. An easy Mum would mean that she would be washed and dressed in a decent amount of time, with no tantrums. Unfortunately, it is normally the unreasonable Mum who emerges when my sister tries to bathe her.
Bringing up Mum has matured our children too. They have seen their beloved ‘Por Por’,(‘grandmother’ in Cantonese), go from a feisty fun-loving fairy godmother to one that cannot recognise them anymore. We are thankful that they spent so many of their childhood years with her and continued to be close to her even after our move to Cumbria. We often went on long holidays together, travelling either in the UK or abroad. The bond between them, I hope, will never be broken even as Mum continues to travel along this cruel road to oblivion.
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