I first feared that mum’s memory lapses were more than old age forgetfulness in a brief moment of vanity last summer. I was staring at the tall, vertical mirror on her bedroom wall, pushing up my cheek muscles to hide the smile lines around my lips. Mum was watching me and said, “You are too young for Botox.” I chuckled. I wasn’t considering cosmetic intervention but at 43 and in Brazil, the land of Botox, I didn’t think that I was too young for one.
“How old do you have to be for Botox injections?” I asked giggling.
“40” she replied and I could feel deep worry wrinkles cutting into my forehead. Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore.
“And how old do you think I am, mum?”
“Aren’t you 34?” she replied dropping her gaze.
“Mum, this makes me younger than my younger brothers.”
“Are you…36?” She asked hesitantly and I realised she had lost track of the age of her offspring.
Mum’s confusions didn’t seem normal so I took her to see a neurologist, who, after examining and asking her a few questions, explained that it wasn’t uncommon for elderly people that don’t live active lives to become very forgetful. Since my father passed away, almost ten years ago, mum has become increasingly insular, so, I put her mental confusion down to her sedentary lifestyle and lack of social life.
Despite mum’s reluctance, my siblings and I tried to help her become more active. We insisted that she used her hearing aid so she could participate more in conversations, hired a physiotherapist to improve her muscle strength and mobility and took her on outings. But unfortunately, her memory continued to deteriorate. Medical exams were scheduled and the results weren’t good. This summer when I came to visit I asked her again how old I was. She had aged me a little. According to her, I’m now 40. The inaccuracy didn’t surprise me. This time I knew that her mental confusion was revealing more than her way of living. Mum is losing her sense of time – she has been diagnosed with vascular dementia.
Vascular dementia is caused by problems of blood circulation in the brain, which in mum’s case was triggered by mini-strokes in the brain (transient ischaemic attack). These strokes cause damage in the area associated with learning, memory and language. The prognosis isn’t great. If the degeneration continues to occur at a rapid rate, the life expectancy is about 10 years. As the disease progresses she will become more forgetful, frail and, confused.
It hurts to see mum not being mum, not remembering to do the things she enjoyed to do for herself and for us. I wasn’t prepared to face her old age like this and I’m still learning to accept that our roles have been reversed and that our lives and our relationship are never going to be the same. I miss the smell of her chocolate cake but now if I want to bring that memory to life I have to do the baking myself. At the moment it’s the small things but I sense that mum is gradually being dragged to a different dimension, a world where time doesn’t matter, a planet without a past or future. And she will increasingly spend more time at this place, often confused, frustrated and alone.
Because of the nature of the disease, I don’t know if she will ever realise that she has embarked on this journey and I wonder if she will be scared. Because I am. I’m pretty frightened to see my mum slowly being transformed into a different person. I’m scared because I don’t know how I’m supposed to follow her into her new world. I’m worried because I feel hopeless. I want to rescue mum from there but the wrinkles in my forehead are getting deeper and longer as I know there is only so much I can do. I can help slow the process but I cannot stop it.
I’m starting to unknown my own mother. Mum used to be predictable, consistent and calm but her behaviour is changing and she is losing these precious parts of her character. Now, one minute she agrees to go out with me but by the time I get changed, she’s changed her mind. Or forgot she had agreed to anything. Mum’s confidence is being whittled away, along with her memories. She is often responding to questions with other questions, uncertain of her own words, of facts or figures. “Mum, how much did you spend at the bakery today?” I’ll ask and she will reply “Didn’t I spend nine bucks?”
I look forward to coming home every summer but I’m starting to stress about my knock at the door being answered by a different person, by a new version of mum and that maybe that person won’t know me, or my story and the essence of who I am. I hope that day never comes, but if it does, I’ll offer her a smile because she taught me that a smile and kind words can heal a broken day. And I’ll come in and look at the tall, vertical mirror on her bedroom wall and will forever cherish the smile lines I gained because of her.