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Dementia Diary: Mum has no past, no future. No date bears any significance now. She only has today

Being Mum: This Christmas there will be no overt endowment of gifts that leave her feeling, in the moment, as if she must reciprocate

“Nobody gave me anything for Christmas,” Mum pouts, in tones that speak to hurt disappointment.

Increasingly there is a childlike churlishness about her, so uncharacteristic of her old self.

At times like this I question: Do I correct her? Do I let it go? What would be worse – for I don’t know – that she feels left out? Or that she cannot remember being included?

Because of course she received presents. Plenty.

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And all so painstakingly chosen: by her children, her grandchildren.

My WhatsApp messages bear testimony to careful deliberation.

“What shall I get Gran?”

“Let me think,” I respond. And resort to Google, tapping “what to gift somebody with dementia” into the search bar.

Our options are limited: books? She cannot read – not with ease, not anymore, nor with the memory to sustain the story, keep the thread of comprehension taut between pages.

“I can’t make head or tail of this,” she complains as she casts yet another title aside: “it’s a load of old rubbish!” I scurry to the bookshelf, again, to select a new one. A charade: to make believe things are normal. For her sake or mine, I am never sure.

Gift her clothes – something pretty and feminine – and within days she will be crossly emptying her wardrobe of them: “These aren’t mine! Who put all these funny shirts in here?” And I will note, with dismay, a mounting pile of blouses on her bed, a clatter of empty hangers scattered at her feet.

Her toiletries are down to a basic soap, baby shampoo and the talcum powder she has used as long as I can remember, an instinctive, daily habit, like brushing her teeth. I am constantly sweeping it from the bathroom floor where she has dusted herself – and the tiles – liberally, like a ballerina might a stage, and left it treacherous and slippery.

One Christmas we tried adult colouring books.

She was outraged: “These are for children,” she shouted.

Wool and knitting needles were a safe bet for a bit – but she has forgotten how to cast on, cast off. It’s all dropped stitches and knotted yarn now.

My son bought her a Grow Your Own Bonsai Tree one Christmas, long before we understood my mother could grow nothing new. The following, a candle-making kit. But hot wax and dementia conspire as a dangerous combination. I bought her a map to pin on her wall hoping it would help her identify, remember, understand where her children are, where her siblings live, where her history was. But Ireland and England and India and Africa have merged muddily as one. She is aghast when I speak of hemispheres: winter in one, summer in the other, daylight in the East and sundown in the West. In trying to help her navigate her world, I’ve got her totally lost.

Chocolate? There’s always a box of chocolates. Except that there are no brakes. She cannot remember whether she’s had one or two or three or none of them or eaten the lot. And then she might puzzle at empty wrappers: who ate all those? she will ask accusingly. Sometimes I wonder why I bother to impose any kind of convention or restraint. Dementia doesn’t. Let her eat the whole box and to hell with the (fattening, sickening) consequences.

One year my siblings and I invested in an Echo Show at Amazon and felt smug in our cleverness. How easy it would be for Mum to contact whomever she wanted to talk to on Skype now, we thought.

It began well enough.

“Alexa, please Skype Anthea.”

And within minutes, there we were, talking across a medium hosted by an inanimate entity. Mum marvelled; there was no trying to navigate an iPad with its confusing icons and busy screens and too many letters to decipher. No angry jabbing with fingers so that the device gave up and died. Just an imperious command: “Alexa, call Anthea.”

Except in time, of course, she forgot Alexa’s name.

“I want to speak to somebody else,” she wailed, “not that awful woman, she is so unhelpful”.

And then Mum forgot mine: what was Alexa, or whatever the hell she called herself, to do now. How was she to know who it was Mum thought she wanted to speak to?

The Echo Show lost face, fell silent, gathered dust.

And if we imagined we could make up for the presents she forgot we gave her with our presence, we were mistaken. Two Christmases in a row, children and grandchildren gathered from those unidentifiable corners of Mum’s map. Two Christmases in a row with dinner prepped, a festive table laid, candles lit, carols playing and Mum refused to join us. Absolutely refused to leave her room. She feigned tiredness, nausea, excuses, excuses. Her collected grandchildren were devastated: “But where’s Gran”. Her cracker sat unpulled; “We’ll save it for her,” I said.

My husband stood to make a toast to my dead father, to absent friends and family. I looked at Mum’s empty chair. Is she still with us at all, I worried, anywhere? The distance dementia cleaves makes her feel less present every day.

So this Christmas, what will we do this Christmas?

My husband and I will join our children. My brother will stand in for me; he and Mum will share a quiet meal. He needn’t call it Christmas dinner. It doesn’t have to be. It can just be supper. Or lunch. With ice-cream as a treat. A handful of chocolates afterwards.

There will be no overt endowment of gifts that leave her feeling – in the moment – as if she must reciprocate, and afterwards oblivious to the fact she received anything anyway.

She has no past, no future. No date bears any significance now: her birthday. Mine. December 25th. She only has today. Whatever today is. Dementia strips everything bare, a wintered bough. I think of Anthony Hopkins in The Father; “I am losing all my leaves,” he said.

Mum’s are almost all gone.

Keeping Mum: A dementia diary

  1. ‘I forgot you were my daughter’
  2. Time for a holiday
  3. Is depression key?
  4. ‘Cures’ are too hard to resist
  5. Mum is aghast when I say we’re her daughters
  6. Mum remembers nobody
  7. Mum only has today
  8. Everything about my mother is shrinking

Instagram: @anthea_rowan