real life

How I used laughter to deal with my mother's Alzheimer's.

Have you ever wondered why older people seem grumpy?

I do. My father, at the age of 86, is very grumpy—my son is too loud, there is nothing on the television worth watching, things are too expensive now, the younger generation have no respect for the older, kids should be outside playing, not inside on their iPads.

Hang on. All of that is actually true! So maybe old people aren’t grumpier, just more honest. Maybe at some point they just decide, to hell with it—I’m going to say what I think. And the older they get, the more honest they get.

My husband’s grandmother lived to the age of 98, and was as honest as they came. A woman in her nursing home named Wendy, who resided on the same floor, also had her name and photo on the door, which showed a largish woman with grey curly hair and a big cheerful smile; underneath the photo was her nickname, ‘Grandma Hugs’. One afternoon, my husband remarked to his grandma that ‘Grandma Hugs’ seemed like a  nice lady.

Grandma looked up from the TV—whose company she clearly preferred to ours—and said, ‘If she tries to hug me I will push her to the ground!’ She would ’ve been lucky to tip the scales at around 40 kilos, whereas Grandma Hugs weighed in at around 90 kilos. In her case at least, it seems brutal honesty was a source of strength that could overcome any physical shortcomings.

Michelle's parents at her brothers wedding. Her mother would eventually develop Alzheimer’s. Image supplied.

Another time we were sitting in her room at the nursing home as my mother-in-law was sorting through some clothes in a chest at the foot of her bed that Grandma had decided were to be thrown out. Each piece of clothing was brought out and held up for Grandma to assess and perhaps salvage. A lovely cream-coloured cardigan with pastel hand-knitted flowers sewn onto the lapels was offered up. Casting her eyes upon the garment, she threw her arms up and declared,

‘Get rid of it, it’s awful.’ My mother-in-law took a breath and awkwardly explained that she’d bought that cardigan only a few months ago and Grandma had seemed to like it. Grandma asked for a closer inspection of the cardigan, ran her fingers across the flowers and said, ‘Well, I didn’t care for it then, and I don’t care for it now.’ Yep, that’s honesty for you.

Then of course there’s that fine line between honesty and Alzheimer’s. One example of that was when my normal-sized and nicely groomed cousin walked into her mum’s nursing home one afternoon with a beautiful bunch of flowers. It wasn’t Mother’s Day, or her mother’s birthday—it was just a simple gesture to say I love you and I hope these flowers brighten up your day.

She got no more than five steps inside her mum’s room and my aunt said, ‘If you put on any more weight your arse won’t fit through that door! And what have you done to your hair? You look a hundred.’ You can only hope that the flowers all drooped and a downbeat kind of ‘bup bow’ comedy sound effect filled the room. What makes a mother say that to her daughter?

Clearly someone who has Alzheimer’s or dementia can’t really control their emotions, and in turn what they end up saying to people, so there is no point being offended in these situations. Mum never went down that brutally honest path. She was virtually the opposite—always a wonderfully supportive and happy person. One of the last words I remember her saying with any regularity was ‘ beautiful’. She used it in reference to everything.

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Michelle's parents at her wedding. Image supplied.

‘How is that meal, Mum?’

‘Beautiful.’

‘Are you feeling okay today, Mum?’

‘Beautiful.’

‘Do you need to go to the toilet, Mum?’

‘Beautiful.’

We were thankful Mum had latched onto such a lovely, positive word. One gentleman in her facility had only two words in his vocabulary: ‘piss’ and ‘off ’. Used together in succession. About everything, and to everyone. Even my young son. (It’s amazing how toddlers store things in their tiny little minds and then recall them at the most inopportune time.)

One place in nursing homes where honesty is in full flight is the dining room. Of course, nobody expects a five-star meal in these facilities—and with a fair number of the meals vitamised, it seems pointless to cook up a beautiful piece of marbled wagyu and then pulse it in the blender. So it’s cereal, toast and fruit for breakfast, casserole or cold cuts and salad for lunch, then pasta or roast for dinner.

I have to admit there were days I couldn’t quite determine the specific type of meat on offer, but it was definitely a protein, I think. What I do know is that the meals are planned around dietary and nutritional requirements, and served up to 100 people in each sitting, and to a budget, so there are times when the food is going to be a little less than hot, and a little less appetising than something prepared by Heston Blumenthal.

Michelle's son Sam with her grandparents. Image supplied.

Throughout the dining room you could hear the reviews of the meal, accompanied by expletives as a bowl of custard hit the dirt. An elderly man who often sat at Mum’s table needed to be fed by a carer, who would load up a spoon full of vitamised goodness and lift it towards his mouth, just as his arm would slap it away, sending the food and utensil flying through the air like some kind of tasty missile.

Another resident had her own personal form of protest. She would take her teeth out at the dining table and set them on the plate next to her food and refuse to put them back in until the food was prepared to her satisfaction. I bet the other residents fought over who got to sit at her table every day. Nothing spikes the appetite more than a nice set of false teeth sitting on the table—yummo, pass the salt please.

Mum, though, was a good eater, probably because Dad made it his mission to force every piece of food into her mouth, whether she was hungry or not. I think my mother was the only woman who, after a couple of years residing in the nursing home, had put on ten kilos. While everyone else was complaining about the food, the response I got from Mum, every time I asked her how lunch or dinner was, was always the same: ‘Beautiful.’

This is an edited extract of Michelle Wyatt's book Not Right In The Head. It can be purchased here

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