Painting the full picture

I was lying across the couch with a book trying to decide whether to read or take a nap, when mum appeared from the kitchen with a Tupperware container full of colour pencils.

“That time of the day.” She announced smiling at me.

It was 3:30 pm and it was hot and I thought it was the perfect time for a nap, so I put the book on the floor and made myself more comfortable on the couch. But mum wasn’t talking about nap time. She walked over and sat at the dinning table and placed the container alongside two stacks of books laying in front of her. Her skinny, pale hand scattered the books on the table – books with black outlines of animals, flowers, patterns and cupcakes. She picked the title Floral Designs. She loves flowers and talk about flowers but there was no talking that afternoon. She was ready to fill the blank spaces with colours.

Mum flicked through the pages then put the book aside and started inspecting the tips of her colourful tools. She pulled a pencil sharpener from the Tupperware container and shaved away the worn surface of three pencils: “red, green and yellow” she said out loud. Looked like she was now ready to start her project, to get lost in the world of colouring in.

I’m all for meditation but have no patience to sit still to colour in mindfulness colouring books, or any books for that matter. I think I may waste precious time unable to relax, trying to figure out which colours to use and how to combine them. But mum has been colouring in these books for months. Her collection just keeps growing. She says it’s calming and that she likes watching the colour slowly spread across the page and the surprise element of creating something unexpected and pretty.

I realised I wasn’t going to fall sleep anymore so I sat down and moved to the corner of the couch to observe mum more closely. I saw that she selected the green pencil and, in slow, repetitive movements started to fill the stencilled page. She was focused and the room was quiet. All I could hear was the hypnotic scratching sound of pencil lead on paper. She paused from time to time swap pencils or turn the pages.

Mum smiles at everyone she meets and I saw her smiling at what was appearing underneath the colours. So I got up and sat beside her to take a peep at her creations.

She was creating beautiful patterns and I congratulated her on her creativity but what really caught my attention was that most of the patterns were unfinished. She was moving on to the next object without finishing the previous one. I flicked through the pages in the other books and most of them had not been completed. It didn’t make sense to me to leave the images partially done.

“Mum, why don’t you finish a pattern before you move to the next one?”

“That’s funny,” she frowned, “my friend asked me the same question.”

“Your pages will be even more beautiful if you complete them.”

“I don’t know,” she continued without looking at me, “I don’t feel like I need to finish them.” She turned the page.

Oh no. I could immediately feel drops of sweat running down my back. At the moment I came to the conclusion that mum, who is 74 and had recently been diagnosed with dementia, was losing the ability to see the full picture. She was going downhill much faster than I expected. I knew I was catastrophising. I wasn’t sure if the page hoping really indicated a progression of the disease but my Hypochondriac brain tends to resort to the worst case scenario when it comes to health issues. I grabbed a pencil and the book closest to me and started colouring in to calm down. I needed to find my focus again.

I just sat there in silence with mum, following the lines with my left hand no end in sight, no destination and I didn’t know if it was the repetitive strokes but I could sense I was starting to relax. When I completed a couple of patterns I looked at mum, content in her world of patterns and colours. Her back was straight and her neck leaning slightly forward. She was losing her hearing and her memory, but she looked content and poised. Just then I realised that it didn’t matter if she can see the full picture or not. What she sees makes her happy and that’s enough. I felt like I was learning to get the full picture. These books can be useful after all.

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Forgotten memories, unforgettable lines

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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.

I’ve reframed my picture of ageing this holiday

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Four years ago: my mum, very capable at 69, Balmoral beach, Sydney

We all dream of a picture perfect holiday, with white sands, blue beaches and most importantly away-from-it-all. My holidays in Brazil have had a good deal of perfect moments but I certainly didn’t get away from the catastrophes of living. It’s been very confronting to see how much my mum has aged in the last 12 months and hard work to let go of the idyllic view I held of ageing.

The vision I had for my parents in old age was dotted with time for rest and reflection and opportunities to do things they didn’t do when we were young but this simply didn’t eventuate. Of course I was conscious that ageing is a period of decline but I didn’t think my mum would walk the downhill road in her seventies. When dad’s life was cut short eight years ago I knew things were not going to be as rosy as I had pictured them but I was still positive about mum’s ageing. My expectations were reinforced when she came to visit us in Australia four years ago, on her own and full of vitality. Unfortunately I think that trip marked the beginning of her decline.

It’s been emotionally painful to see that the wonderful chef my mum once was can no longer cook a nice meal and the avid storyteller lacks the desire to entertain her grandkids with tales of a bygone era. Mum hasn’t been diagnosed with any age related illnesses but she has endured debilitating spinal problems, hearing and memory loss. She feels frail, alone and at times frustrated with her situation.  When I was growing up anger was a feeling I rarely saw mum displaying but she has a much shorter fuse these days. When I met my mum in this condition I felt a deep sense of helplessness and I wasn’t able to sleep for several nights thinking of ways to help her change her situation.

So, since arriving in Brazil I’ve read a good deal of articles about ageing parents and learnt a bit about the harsh reality of the elderly – the chronic health problems, increasing frailty and social isolation. The suffering of the elderly can be so severe that it can lead to depression and even suicide. In fact, suicide rates around the world are higher for people over 70 than any other age group.

In my eagerness to help I’ve made a few well intentioned suggestions and recommendations that were not interpreted that well by mum. When you lose your independence and control you become very reluctant to change. So instead of creating more friction and stress I’ve decided to change the one thing that I can control: my view of ageing. I have now accepted that my mum is no longer self-sufficient and that the parent I once depended on is now increasingly dependent on me and my siblings.

Once I was able to accept my mum’s ageing as a fact of life and something I have little control over I started to sleep well again. I’ve adjusted my expectations so as to lie within the realm of what is possible and as result improved my relationship with mum. This doesn’t mean I’ll sit down and watch my mum wither – I’ll still do what’s possible to relieve mum’s suffering but I’ll be mindful of her limits, feelings and desires.

These holidays I tried to get away from it all but found myself right in the middle and coming to terms with our mortality and shared vulnerability. It certainly hasn’t been the picture perfect holiday I expected but definitely one I will never forget.