The Monday Extract: Losing Mum to dementia

An excerpt from Pip Desmond’s best-selling memoir about her mother’s descent into dementia.

I read about a hairdresser who had three customers pass away under the hairdryer; she took it as a compliment that they’d felt relaxed enough to do so. That could have been Mum. She had been going to David’s hair salon in Wadestown once a week since 1965, when our family shifted into the suburb. From Newtown, she continued to drive across the city every Thursday to let him wash and style her fine, straight hair into a bouffant, add colour when needed, then put her under a dryer with a cup of tea, her head covered with rollers.

She found a kindred spirit in David. The hour and a half she spent with him was her one concession to being pampered. He’d done her hair when her mother died, when her husband got sick, when her kids left home, for weddings and birthdays, Christmas and Easter, and just so she could face the world. The appointment had always been important to her. But now it was the high point of her week.

Until the Thursday that Kate discovered Mum had made an appointment with Ginny’s hairdresser, Amadeus, in Newtown, for the same time as her appointment with David.

Mum said David had rung to say he couldn’t fit her in any more and, while she was very put out after all these years, there were advantages in going somewhere local. This was true. Since Mum had lost her licence, it was a hassle to get her to David’s. But it was a fixed point in her unravelling life. We all agreed it was sacrosanct.

Kate cancelled the Amadeus appointment and drove Mum to David’s. The following Thursday, she arrived to take her again and found the door locked. Mum had taken a taxi to get her hair cut by Amadeus.

We were used to Mum sabotaging arrangements she didn’t like. This was different. David was one of her favourite people. It didn’t make sense for her to cut him out of her life. But she closed the door on David and never re-opened it. A line had been crossed. Slowly she’d whittled down her friends; he can take credit for being the last to go. Now she just wanted us. For everything.

After she’d had a fall in the kitchen, and could hardly walk, we set up a 24-hour roster. At three in the morning, Rose woke to find Mum outside smoking a cigarette. The next afternoon, Matt found her clinging to the bannister at the bottom of the stairs, unable to move. He helped her back to bed where she took two sleeping pills, saying she needed a good sleep because her back was very sore.

Mum’s GP told us off the record that the quickest way to have Mum’s needs reassessed was to get her admitted to Wellington Hospital. She warned it wouldn’t be easy. We took it in turns to sit with Mum propped up in a wheelchair in the emergency department waiting room while a procession of the lame and the sick were given higher priority.

When she hadn’t been seen by evening, we took her back to Colville Street, stayed with her overnight, then returned next morning. Heartless as it felt to deliver her up like a sacrificial lamb, none of us buckled. Carol from Alzheimers Wellington had said the right time for someone to move out of their house was when the family couldn’t cope any more. That time had come.

Towards the end of the second day, Mum was seen by a doctor and given a bed in a four-person cubicle. The health system took over: a CT scan, occupational therapy assessment, visits from the physiotherapist, dietician and chaplain. Family made a fuss of her. My son Jackson, working in the hospital pharmacy to fund his science degree, put his head round the curtain and they had a great talk, he said. Next day, they had another great talk: the same one.

Mum, who’d always preferred solitude, lapped up the attention and the buzz of the surgical ward. As a doctor’s wife, she found the medical world familiar and reassuring. In hospital she was a sick person, not someone losing her mind.


This excerpt is from Song for Rosaleen by Pip Desmond (Massey University Press, $30), available from Unity Books.


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