n the middle of the week my mother phoned me, completely out of the blue. She was chatty and very much in the present and was 'grateful for all that my family is doing.' It would have been a short call butfor me telling her I was taking a break at that moment and was very happy that she had called me to talk.
"Are you really?" she replied, without pathos.
"Yes, I'd like it if you called more often.
"Oh, well then, I will. I didn't want to interrupt anything, I know how busy you get."
And so we had a pleasant conversation and she might have been forty-five or fifty rather than 92.
Later that day my sister called. She had been to the doctor because mum has been staying in bed till 11 or 12 midday and missing her social clubs saying that the arthritis in her feet was too painful. My sister couldn't get her different pain killers but did get th dose increased. Meanwhile mum had gone returned to her 'clubs' but was very confused in the New Year, phoning up my sister on New Years Day Eve and New Years day to wish her 'Happy Christmas' and confabulating to fill the gaps left by the tasks she can no longer carry out.
My response, after my mother called was one of thoughtfulness and a little dread. I have a private 'superstition' that this is how it will be when she is near death. A last moment of clarity and good humour and then a peaceful or sudden collapse. My sister's news almost reassured me - though the news was a couple of weeks old. Otherwise, my sister admitted, she had seemed 'chirpy' just lately with only sudden attacks of fierce bitterness about imagined slights from my sister and grief over the 'premature' death of my stepfather.
Dementia is like a roller coaster in slow motion occasionally. There are dips and plunges into confusion, bitter recriminations and accusations which in another person might be seen as paranoid and aggressive and there are sudden short slow ascents where it is hard to see the person as anything other than old.
That always leads me back to the question 'Aren't we medicalising, pathologising certain behaviours and losses in a person when memory starts to go and confusion sets in at an age anywhere between 80 and 100?'
How conscious and present do we expect people to be in what is still considerable old age? When do we allow for people to naturally begin to lose cognitive and other mental functions because it is part of the inevitable movement beyond this life - which exacts a toll on all of us, more or less?
In an age of individualism and self-centredness when the extended family is a memory do we quickly jump into assigning labels to people that let us continue to think mostly about our own happiness and well-being than accept that once there was a responsibility and acceptance to be made where now there is only the urgent need to assign labels and create illnesses towards which we can offer no relief or care - we're so tangled up in our fiercely full lives.
How much are we struck by the fear of our own aging processes, projecting this fear as something 'other' [our shadow selves] on to the person with dementia? Long term memory - our cultural past, is rich in these parents and others at this stage of 'dementia'. Once we would have overlooked the lack of present awareness for the rich fund of family and national social history they are guardians of.