Sunday, 17 May 2009

recycling remembering

Recently, within an hour of joining my local "freecycle" network I saw someone advertising a Dymo label machine which I gratefully picked up. I was at Mum's place yesterday, putting pictures on the walls and adding labels to each picture.

I didn't want to turn it into a quiz for her, so I resisted the urge to put her on the spot and ask, "Who is this?" about each picture, but I did note anything that she volunteered. True to the stereotype about memory and age, she had no clue about the pictures of her grandchildren, but identified her own Father right away. She pointed to a large portrait of her Husband and said that she liked that one of Dad, but then a few minutes later she asked me who he was and guessed it might be a picture of me. I understand her confusion in a way - I fill the function these days of being the provider, the closest family, the most important male figure in her life.

I'd also brought over all our family photo albums which I discovered last year locked away in a trunk and obviously forgotten about for a decade. I encouraged Mum to leaf through them. She was far more intent on demolishing some Turkish Delight I'd bought, but at my prompting she picked up the same album again and again, making the same comments about the same pictures. She didn't recognise herself in the photos from Japan, adamant that she had NEVER tinted her hair in her life so it couldn't POSSIBLY be her. I told her that photographs were great for showing us that all of us can forget the darnedest things.

I was pleased to see that when she DID find a picture that excited her she very much wanted to take the album down to the Lounge and show it to them all. Mum has found a new peer group, a new set of friends, a new family.

I waited around until dinnertime and, whilst Mum was eating a hearty meal, I took out the laser spirit-level, electric drill and plasterboard fixings from my bag and fixed a large Japanese screen above her bed. It's something that I've debated doing for a long while - the screen is ancient and painted on very fragile paper and there's a danger that it will be damaged here. But it's mostly out of reach of poking fingers above Mum's headboard and I feel I need to acknowledge her life with this little touch of exotic luxury. I want to proclaim that this is a person who has lived an unusual life and seen wonderful things.

And if it doesn't outlast her I won't be too upset: it's not something I've felt comfortable having on my own walls these past few years - it didn't feel "mine". If I am going to go off travelling later this year it makes more sense for Mum to enjoy the screen rather than it going into a storage facility.

And perhaps there was another motive behind my decision. By choice Mum has lived within bare walls for the last 10 years. After Dad died, she moved to a newly constructed apartment and got rid of so many family possessions, favouring bland modern furniture over items I'd grown up with, things that we had bought or had made for us whilst we were living overseas. I suspect that she chose this Care Home because it was brand new, too. I often wonder if Mum's memory might not have stuck around longer if she hadn't so willfully scrubbed these physical reminders from her vision. I hope I've done the right thing in trying to put some of the memories back on the walls around her.


citygirl said...

I recently joined a "freecycle" myself! Nothing of interest on there right now but you never know what treasure you'll happen upon, like your labeller. I have a labeller which I LOVE using. A little bit geeky, eh?

I think it is great that you are putting labels on the photos. Years ago, I worked part-time at a photofinishing shop. There was a lady who would come in now & then and tell us extensively about her mom who had Alzheimers and how she was labelling all these photos to help her mom remember. She would tell us this EVERY SINGLE TIME she came into the store. I felt a bit odd listening to her because I didn't quite understand why she felt compelled to tell strangers about her mom.

At the time, my mom's symptoms were very mild and infrequent and I had no idea that she had Alzheimers. I thought she was just "getting old and missing Dad" as my siblings told me.

I wish I could go back in time to listen more to that customer or offer her a better ear... I feel like a bit of a jerk for not being more kind to her back then. Just shows that you really don't know how bad Alzheimers is until it hits home.

The Japanese screen sounds lovely. I'd love to see a picture of it or hear about your mom's reaction to its appearance in her room.

Greg said...

I'm glad you told me about that lady, because I think I've turned into her. I tell strangers about Mum all the time.

Is it because of this blog, I wonder? Am I so used now to exposing the worst here that I've become inured to the "shame" that is usually felt about such things?

It feels liberating, though, just to let it out. And it's surprising how many people respond with their own experience of a close relative who has had Dementia of some sort. There are shops I go into where the staff ask after Mum every time I go in. I used to take Mum in with me when she was staying with me and they still remember her as a real "Lady".

Ugh... I know what you mean about that period where you just don't realise what's happening with them. I cannot believe how long I left it before accepting the truth. The signs were there in 1999 but it was 8 years before I grew up a little and intervened to stop Mum dying of self-neglect. I'd understand anyone not getting it after climbing that learning curve myself.

I've been kicking myself for not getting a picture of the screen on my wall here. I'll try and remember to get a photo of it on Mum's wall when I visit next. I understand that Mum very much took its appearance in her stride. I left it to be a surprise for her and telephoned later. In retrospect I see that I should have shown it to her myself. She can react appropriately if she senses that you want a reaction. Mum really has lost a great deal of visual competence and just doesn't recognise things or people - I know she remembers Dad, for instance, but that's not the same as recognising his face in a photo.

As usual, I'm still doing stuff that would have meant SO much more to her a few years ago but which is lost on her now. Still, I'm hoping the screen will help individualise her room and perhaps refine how the staff treat her a little (not that I have any complaints there).

citygirl said...

Heh heh. I am that LADY too. I still tell everyone about my mom all the time. It's amazing how many times I've told someone about my mom and it turns out that they have a relative with Alzheimers too. I guess that customer from the photo shop didn't have blogging (it was about 14 years ago) so she talked to everyone & anyone, including her photo shop girl.

I still kick myself about the time period where I didn't realize what was happening to my mom. It just seemed that there wasn't as much awareness of Alzheimers then (even though it was only 17 years ago). A counsellor at university helped me realize that there was much more going on than "missing Dad or getting old". Funny how I was the one in counselling while my mom was the one that was ill.

I'd very much enjoy seeing a picture of this screen. You describe things so well in your writing that I can almost imagine what things look like. Or somedays, I almost feel like I'm transported to the scene you are describing!

Y | O | Y said...

My brother and I have come to the decision here that we're going to place Mom in an assisted care facility. The whole situation has just about killed me (details on my other blog).

The thing I hear over and over is to make sure that we place as many familiar things in her room to make sure she feel like she's in comfortable surroundings.

I plan on photos, etc., but also some afghans that her mother made that she likes to fold and remind us who crocheted them. I think I'll bring her teddy bear, too!

Greg said...

Hi Y|O|Y

I don't know how to respond - whether to say that I'm sorry you've come to the point where you can't cope any more, or to say that I think it's probably for the best for both you and your Mom. If it wasn't 3:30am here I suspect I would find some way of saying both at once (can we pretend I did?). I've read "Alzheimer's Moments" long enough now to know that you will approach choosing a facility the same care and devotion you've consistently shown in looking after your Mom, and I suspect you're going to find it a hard and guilt-inducing separation. I hope that, like me, you find that your Mom takes to her new environment with surprising alacrity and that you find that a lot of your anxieties are needless. I look forward to reading about how you make your choice and how you deal with your emotions about this big change.

I couldn't find the details you mentioned in your blog(s). Am I being dense, or are you in the process of re-writing?

Your plans to furnish her room with photos and afghans sounds great. It took me a while before I allowed myself to start imposing these things on my own Mother. Her own brand of dementia seems to have led to her preference for blank and bland surroundings, but I'm increasingly of the opinion that I need to surround her with memories and that she might retain more if there are clues all about her.