Thursday, January 29, 2009

Diary: The big A

Time is a strange thing. You don't notice it creeping along until it seems to have suddenly zoomed away, catching you off guard. Today was one of those moments.

This morning I took Mum to see a memory specialist at the Prince of Wales hospital. I really thought it would be a bit of a waste of time to be honest, or maybe I've just been fooling myself. Mum has always been a bit ditsy, that's why I gave her the grandparent nickname Ninny (as in Nincompoop). But lately she's been ditsier than usual, looses her handbag, can't find the front door of our house, says something completely daft. Family friends have phoned me on more than one occasion, worried about her forgetting lines on stage but I've been advocating retirement for years. There have been other phone calls though, about Mum bursting into tears. Confusion, anxiety.

But it all adds up doesn't it? When the right questions are asked a pattern starts to appear. The nurse asked if Mum gets agitated from something she described as 'sensory overload' and a piece of the puzzle clicked into place. Mum is repeatedly commenting on planes going over, how many cars are on the road, so many people everywhere. Suddenly I realised why Mum has been so overbearing when I've taken her out with Tom recently, why she has been so fearful and difficult and why the last few excursions have been such a disaster with me loosing my temper then berating myself afterwards. I've been irritated and annoyed, not realising this is actually a symptom.

The doctor had Mum do some brain tests. Simple things, like knowing what day, month and year it is. Can you remember an address? Can you think of twenty words that start with the letter P? How many animals can you name? Can you identify simple pictures of objects? Can you repeat a drawing of a wireframe cube? Can you draw a clock?

Like I said, it happens in small increments, so you don't see it coming. Mum defers to Dad to answer questions or finish sentences, but it feels like she's always done that. I start to wonder when I accepted this. Mum used to speak her mind. I used to complain of her stubborness. She used to command the microphone at functions, not stand blithely by a stage manager. Stupidly I've been taking it personally that she doesn't seem to make any decisions lately without deferring to Dad. But now I see how lost she is without him prompting her.

The brain test has been completed and marked. I look over the answers as the doctor speaks and recognise Mum's loopy script. There are false starts here and there scribbled out in biro. The clock face has been drawn a couple of times but not completed. A picture of a crown has been labelled 'cake', then crossed out and renamed 'king'. There are five animals listed. Although my head is starting to spin I reassure myself that at least this test is quantifiable, that these results will show the line where Mum's eccentricity stops and her 'memory problems' as we've begun to call them, begin. At least now I'll know what I'm dealing with.

The doctor is a kind man. He has very pale skin and large ears, his voice is reassuring and gentle. The perfect bedside manner for dementia patients I think to myself. He seems used to hearing odd answers that don't match the question he's asked. My parents ramble on about how Mum's career got started, I've heard this story one hundred times or more and question its relevance. But the doctor doesn't seem to mind or be in any hurry. I hear Dad say "my wife was a party girl" and I remember her when I was young hosting dinner parties and cooking her signature 'thousand leaf cake'. The doctor speaks with measured words and hesitates before he announces his diagnosis. Mild to moderate Alzheimer's. I am in shock.

Suddenly it seems, my parents are old. Dad has to repeatedly visit the men's room, cane in hand. His hands look papery, not plump like they used to, and I notice them tremble when he's using them. I look down and see Mum's toenails painted bright red, visible in little white toe-peeper shoes. More skin than nail has been painted and I'm struck with sadness. I hear Dad telling the doctor they've only recently retired, finished the big house move, they want "a few good years", he sounds like he is trying to bargain. The doctor can prescribe medication but it is not a magic bullet. They talk to Dad and I about the importance of structure, familiarity and routine. Things I know about with regard to raising children. They look worried when Dad mentions the idea of going on a cruise. How bad is this, I am starting to wonder.

It is a strange family I belong to, my parents thank the doctor and his assistant repeatedly and discuss how nice they were on the way home. Dad thinks it didn't go too badly. Mum is more worried about me feeling cold in the hospital's air conditioning. Do they not realise the implications of this diagnosis, or are they keeping their true feelings hidden? I decide on the way home the first thing I will do is hug my husband and children, and I will live today, not for tomorrow.

Not to be printed without written permission of the writer Katie Little.

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