I’ve just returned from a week at Hillbeck, home for the demented. My mother has lived there for two years now. We moved her when she had one fall too many in her own home and had largely lost her sense of time and place. For the first few months we reassured (lied to) her that she would be living there on a temporary basis, but after a while she stopped asking when she would be going home. Until this trip. Out of the blue she announced to me that she’d be leaving there soon.
“but you haven’t been here very long mum”
“yes I have”
“no you haven’t, how long do you think it’s been?”
Bugger me! How the hell did she know that? It will be two years next month. Fortunately, the good thing about Alzheimers is.
Where was I? Anyway, we had a reasonably good week, with me being introduced as either her daughter, cousin or sister. To help remind her, I called her ‘mum’ as often as I could. It used to irritate me when I visited her in Lenham and she’d proudly tell anyone and everyone in the village: “this is my daughter visiting me from Texas.” I miss that.
Hillbeck is a really great care home. The staff are infinitely kind, calm and cheerful. I’ve not seen it yet, but there is a staff venting room where they can go and scream, curse and kick a few walls. Perhaps not, but their patience mystifies me, though this may say more about me than them.
When I arrived last week, many of the residents were gathered around a table folding napkins and cleaning placemats. My mum was the only one not folding the napkins correctly and so of course I told her so in something of an annoyed fashion. See above.
As they folded, the singalong started. There are at least 3 singalongs a day at Hillbeck. Most are 1940s wartime classics along the line of Vera Lynn’s White Cliffs of Dover and We’ll Meet Again. There’s never any shortage of songs because as one comes to an end, it’s instantly forgotten and can therefore be sung all over again. I’ve worked in a nursing home long enough to know the power of music with dementia sufferers. But there’s something about seeing it in my mother. She knew the words to every song, often clapping along to her own personal beat, but like everyone else at the table, totally engaged and happy.
Much like owning a dog, caring for someone with Alzheimers, teaches you about living in the moment.
At the Hillbeck summer fete, mum won this bear for her surprisingly good throwing skills. But a minute after this photo was taken, she had no idea who the bear belonged to and was quite adamant that it wasn’t hers. But in that one moment, she cradled him like the grandchild I never gave her and told me his name was Charles.
Friendships change around at Hillbeck. The ‘best friend forever’ that mum’s holding hands with on one trip might be ignored or referred to as “that wretched thing” on my next. This time I was told by the administrator that there had been an ‘incident’ where mum was seen kissing a male resident. But, she reassured me, there was ‘no tongues’. I of course couldn’t respond as I was trying to swallow back the rising vomit. The man has apparently left now, removed by his family from the clutches of this 87 year old floozy.
Fortunately the unusually decent weather meant we were able to sit outside in the garden for much of my visit. It can get noisy and stuffy inside where residents start complaining if the temperature falls below around 90 degrees. One resident regularly calls out to no-one in particular “am I alright?” I noted on this trip that a sign has been pre-emptively placed on her walker saying “yes you are alright”. But as the sign faces out, my mum decided this was directed at her and crossly told staff that she already knew that.
I take most of this in my stride. The residents I get most upset by are the ones who seem to be perfectly normal. The ones pottering about in the garden, watering plants and wheeling wheelbarrows. Talking to them, I can usually find some mild signs of looming looniness – repetition of the same questions, a weird tick – but the conversations are mostly standard British fare. (1) The weather (“lovely, makes a nice change doesn’t it”), (2) Tea (“there’s nothing like a nice cuppa is there”) and (3) The garden (“don’t the fuschias look lovely”). Pretty much the same small talk my mum and I engaged in for most of my life. So what were these people doing at Hillbeck? Did they start to see the signs in themselves and voluntarily check themselves in? Or did a family member drop them off with the promise that it was ‘just on a temporary basis’.
I look at all these residents in their 70s, 80s, 90s and can’t help but wonder what they were like as young men and women growing up in (to me) one of the most remarkable periods in history. I never talked to my mum enough about her life. Never realized that it was actually a gift and not a burden on me that she was born and grew up during a time that would fascinate me as an adult. There are so many stories and experiences among those Hillbeck residents but their memories are locked away (and unlike the Disney classics, they won’t be released from the vault).
This is one of my favorite photos of my mum. I’ve no idea who took it or where she was, but I know she was happy and living in the moment. And that’s the best that I can continue to hope for her.
Maggie, I enjoyed your writing very much. My mother (and her two younger sisters) lived for over 10 years each with acute senile dementia and the piece you wrote brought back many memories. She lived during those years with me and my three children or a nursing home, back and forth. I have quite a few poems I wrote during that time and made sketches of her. I felt like I got closer to her during those years than when she knew me as her daughter (instead of her sister Vivian). I also wrote a short story, “Car Thief” about my having to “steal” her car before she killed herself or an innocent bystander — during the time I was waiting till I could move her out of her home of over 40 years in a small town in north Texas to Austin. It’s included in a collection of short stories I published last year. We should get together for lunch some time. It would be great if Tish could join us provided we can get her out of NY! So glad to hear you had a good visit with your mum….LOVE the photos.
Thanks for writing Laurie, it’s great to hear from you. Gosh, you have had a lot of experience in dealing with this hideous disease. But I think it’s wonderful that you were able to record your feelings and experiences through your art. I know that it helps me to write these pieces. I would very much like to read your short story, in fact your whole collection. Lunch sounds quite lovely. I wish we could lure Tish back. I’ve not heard more than a few lines from her in ages but still think so happily about when we three were working together on that solo festival. The festival wasn’t up to much, but I had so much fun with you both. Any particular time good for you to meet? I may suggest coffee rather than lunch as I just had braces fitted (morphing into the all-American teenager!) and eating isn’t as much fun as it used to be, though I’m sure I shall settle into them. Just let me know what works best. M xx