Sometimes life can be very simple if you ask the right questions. That’s always been my belief anyway, like “How do you fancy us coming to play in the restaurant lounge when you have an event on?” or “If I got myself qualified as a bus driver can I drive some of your classic Routemasters?” My mum’s questions, however, have always been challenging and she’s as likely to ask me “How can I get to Afghanistan so that I can stand on a roadside bomb and be done with it?” as “Have you brought me any toffees?” to which the answer is always yes to the latter and “Is your passport still valid Mum?” to the former, so that the question doesn’t have the devastating impact she’s trying to create and has the wind taken out of its sails by simple, logical answers. I’ve learned that with Mum and her advancing dementia, interspersed with her magical creative thinking, you have to switch on a different pair of listening ears. Ears that leave logic, pre-conceptions and quick reactions to one side. Alexa ears … Siri ears … just listening to facts and creating as straight forward an answer as possible.
Having had a bit of down time over Christmas, Tony and I have been playing together on piano and double bass. It’s been joyful to focus on filling the house with music and it always reminds me of a hilarious exchange last year when I told Mum that I wanted to learn a bit more about harmony and improvisation.
“Hello Mum, I’ve just come back from my jazz piano lesson”
What do you mean? Don’t you mean violin?
“No, I’m no good at violin, don’t you remember I only got to Grade 3”
Surely that MAN man can teach you violin – for God’s sake! (For some reason she’s very cross at this point).
“Why Mum? I want to learn how to play jazz piano properly”
I can’t imagine him being very good at teaching you piano – he plays the violin. When did he suddenly become a piano teacher?
“EH Mum? What are you on about? He’s been teaching piano for ages, one of the best … why are you so against jazz piano lessons”
Well, I never thought much of your father’s piano playing to be honest.
Very plonky and loud. (He’s a professional violinist).
“What’s Dad got to do with this Mum?”
Well if he insists on teaching you, at least he’s getting up off his lazy arse (they divorced many years ago). Your Dad teaching YOU the piano ! Really ?!?!?!?!
“Ahhhh Mum – JAZZ piano lessons, not DAD’s piano lessons”
Pardon Sonia darling? Your Dad’s NOT teaching you the piano then?”
“No Mum – he’s sticking to the violin – I’ve got another teacher for the piano”.
Good – let him stick to the violin. And then she breaks into the Mendelssohn violin concerto – recalling every beautiful note and humming it pitch perfect – in E minor.
Mum often peppers the conversation with comments about wanting to be gone, but if she ever sees that I’m upset by hearing it she laughs and changes the subject. I know deep down that she’s tired of life and wants peace and relief from pain, but on the other hand she loves the people she’s surrounded by and tries new things every day, so her zest for life and learning is still there in between it all. My lovely friend and neighbour has just recommended a book to me; “Contended Dementia” by Oliver James and there are three rules that people can start thinking about when communicating with people who have dementia. 1) Don’t ask direct questions, 2) Listen to the expert (the person) and 3) Don’t contradict. These are all logical points that will take a bit of practice because I know I contradict my mum a lot – mainly because she says such funny things and it always makes us both laugh, but now I’m wondering if I should start listening to her with those new ears. As for not asking questions, I’ve always thought that the action of asking questions makes the person feel important, included and that it shows that you’re interested in them. The theory in dementia is that it confuses people if they don’t know an answer, can feel under pressure to give the right answer and it highlights that they have reduced short-term memory. Sometimes, when confronted with someone who doesn’t have a lot to say, it’s tempting to fire questions at them to encourage them to talk, but to them it may sound like a barrage of words that serve only to bring pressure and an unwanted spotlight.
Next time I go and see Mum I’m going to compile a playlist of songs that she’s always loved and I’ll bet you anything that she remembers every single word. She’ll probably rip off the headphones and try to give the Ipod away. I’ll keep persevering though because not only does she have a very pretty singing voice when she’s not wailing like a banshee for comic effect, but I can see the light going on in her eyes when she realises that her brain hasn’t give up on her after all.
And one day when the weather improves I can’t wait to see her eyes when we’ve loaded her wheelchair onto the bus and she sees me getting into the driving seat to drive the residents down to the seaside for fish and chips. It could go a million different ways of course. For one, she’ll insist on talking to me the whole time. She might get them all singing one of her favourite songs and I know she’ll be flinging her toffees at everyone and wondering why, two minutes later, there aren’t any left. She’ll put her toffee order in, like she always does and the next day she’ll have forgotten all about it. But I know that somewhere, deep inside that wonderful brain of hers, the memory will be lodged and the right prompt, not question, will bring it back.