Today, I am deeply honoured to feature a reflection by my sister about our mother, who suffers from dementia.
Several months ago, my brother Kenn and I realized that Mom’s dementia had progressed to the point where I could no longer care for her at home, so we made the extremely painful decision to place her in a nursing care facility. Although she has kept her sweet and loving disposition, Mom’s memory has degenerated to the point that she no longer consistently remembers anyone but my brother and I, and sometimes, not even that is always true.
Her world is very small now and she is no longer the once vibrant and capable person we knew her to be. One thing that has not changed though, is her loving personality, and although Mom can no longer carry-on long conversations, she is most content when surrounded by others. She still has a warm smile for everyone she sees and very often will reach out and hold the hand of whomever may be talking to her.
My brother and I have now begun the sometimes-emotional task of going through Mom’s things and though it was not always obvious, she was a very sentimental person and as we have discovered, saved every single card and letter she has ever gotten. So, my brother and I have spent several evenings together, going through these memories of our mom, which are even more poignant because, though she no longer remembers her life, much of it is represented in this box of treasures, carefully saved over a lifetime.
During these times that my brother and I have pored over my mother’s treasured memories, we have laughed and giggled while looking at all the silly things that we, her children bestowed upon her, so full of our childish wisdom and artistic endeavours, that she, our mom had so carefully preserved all these years.
And whereupon reading the love letters and cards written by our dad, to his sweetheart so many years ago, we have looked at one another in surprise and wonder. Going through all the many Christmas, Easter and birthday cards, we smiled in remembrance of holidays and celebrations long past.
Something that many people did not know about our mom was what a talented poet she was. In fact, some of her poems were so good, they were published. But as my brother and I discovered, Mom wrote many more poems throughout her life. Some were written on the backs of envelopes while others were scrawled on small bits of paper, all carefully tucked away.
Poems about love and friendship, God and family. Rambling ballads that spoke of her yearning for Nova Scotia, the homeland she left behind. Some about youthful love and broken hearts. Poems that were light and humorous, while others expressed deep sadness and despair.
My mother wrote this particular poem in November 2000. Discovering it brought great sadness to my brother and I, because we realized that Mom had some awareness, that changes, however subtle were beginning to take place. Changes that we, her family wouldn’t necessarily have noticed and that she didn’t understand but still caused distress that prompted her to write this poem:
What did I say? By Joyce Orphan
One time as we grew older, our minds were our treasure
We were oh! so smart, we had so much pleasure
But now, what has gone wrong
Why at times I can’t even recall my favourite song?
Yesterday was last week
today never happened
And when did I last eat?
Who was that person that just gave me a hug?
Did I hug them back or just give a shrug?
Well tomorrow is another day
I’ll just go along my way
According to the World Health Organization, “more than 55 million people live with dementia worldwide, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year. As the proportion of older people in the population is increasing in nearly every country, this number is expected to rise to 78 million in 2030 and 139 million in 2050.”
As my mother has demonstrated by this poem, the beginning symptoms of this disease can be insidious to the point, where many of us would dismiss it as just the normal changes of getting older. I wish my mom had told us that she was feeling this way, there is no cure at the moment but at the very least, perhaps she wouldn’t have felt alone in her confusion and frustration.
Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to the diagnosis of dementia/Alzheimer’s. People experiencing symptoms, understandingly are afraid to talk about it because of the perception of being seen as incompetent or “senile”. But early diagnosis is key when treating this disease. There are medications that although they do not cure dementia, they can help slow the progression of the disease. And there is always the possibility that there is another underlying and treatable condition, that is causing these symptoms.
Cheryl Orphan, October 2022
Cheryl Orphan is a registered nurse who worked in pediatric care for almost 3 decades. She is currently an artist residing in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Her artwork can be viewed at https://www.instagram.com/cherylorphan31/
*Title photo is a painting by Cheryl Orphan entitled Fleeting Beauty, acrylic on canvas, 2022.