When we moved to the UK, one of the many reasons I chose this town as our home is that my grandmother lives here. Margo is ninety-three, (My gran is waaay too young to be called ‘Granny’ to her face. I wouldn’t dare) and I thought that it would be sensible if someone in the family lived near to her. The lady who visited us for months every year of my childhood in Trinidad; taught me to cook, sew and crochet; danced and sang with me… of course I want to be near her!
I just love this town, and when I found a flat just four blocks away from Margo and opposite the primary school I rejoiced. I thought that one day, my fiercely independent, sharp and healthy gran might need a hand. Not for a while, though! I had visions of us on shopping expeditions and throwing grand tea parties for a few years first.
Well, we did have a few months of fun. And then, Margo’s heart started to give out. Six weeks and three emergency room visits later, she needed looking after. She is much better now, and getting more oxygen to the old brain, but for a few months she could not manage day to day activities like cooking. Her short-term memory is still dreadful. I am grateful and happy to be here, but let me tell you: it’s a little like having a toddler! Here is a person who wants and deserves independence, can be as stubborn as a mule, and entertains me merrily in between.
Margo’s memory is going, going… Oh, she can remember the days of yore, all right, but five minutes ago? Not so much. I love to hear her stories of Before the War when she was young, and the time when she wore above-the-knee SHORTS to ride her bicycle to the next town. How her father despaired! Then I ask her how her neighbour is doing, who was visiting when I arrived, and she says that she doesn’t know: she hasn’t seen the neighbour in weeks, she says. Months! Margo wonders if she’s done something to offend her neighbour?
The memory loss might be funny at times, but it’s a little scary too. I have turned up on several mornings and found the electric oven on, the kitchen broiling. I check the pill box every day, and often the day’s pills are still there. Margo will swear that she never EVER forgets her pills, but if I don’t go every morning and check, she might forget them for days. I hand them to her without comment, and turn the conversation to something funny.
Writing lists is a good way for Margo to remember things. She will write a list, and get groceries collected by a lady with a car, and then phone me up to tell me what’s on the list. I go shopping, and find twin groceries in the fridge when I get to Margo’s flat. No problem for me: I just take them home. We can eventually use anything up, I can sneak things in as they are used up, and overstocking Margo’s fridge causes much stress.
Clutter, in fact, stresses Margo out. Anything that is large, messy, or unfamiliar is just too much to handle. It took me a while to realise that a full fridge is bad: too many things to think about! But enough food for just two days, and no more, is perfect. I am used to shopping in bulk for a family of five, so of course escorting Margo to the supermarket for one small bag of meat, potatoes and veg stresses ME out. I’ve found a solution though. I buy for a week and put the stuff into MY freezer, and then sneak salmon, lamb chops and things into Margo’s every day or so. Sometimes she notices, but mostly she just assumes that she bought it, and she eats it for lunch.
Stress is certainly the enemy. If Margo is upset or worried or angry, she immediately forgets everything and becomes infinitely more difficult to deal with. Saying to her, “Oh, what’s up? Why have you taken all of the pills out of their blister packs, aaaargh! Those are the wrong pills, Margo, and you have forgotten to take the blue ones…” begins a battle of wills that I cannot win, partly because I do not want to beat my beloved grandmother in a battle of any kind, and the discussion stresses Margo out so much that she forgets everything for a whole week. But I know what to do, because I have had toddlers: I cry, “OOOOH, look at that!” and when she looks, “What, what?” I swipe all of the pills; blue, white, beige, small, large, round, oval; into my handbag. When Margo looks back, she sees nothing on the kitchen counter but a teacup and teabag and immediately forgets about the pills. “Tea or coffee?” I ask sweetly.
When I get home, I empty the assorted pills with their open blister packs and the mess of boxes and bits of paper out on my own kitchen table and research them online. The blue ones and the beige ones are the same drug, so she’s been double-dosing. I take over all dosing, fill a weekly-supply container all neatly labelled, and keep the extra pills at my house, out of harm’s way. Usually, this system works, and Margo feels that she has some independence because the pills are there. Some of them.
Of course, cousins and aunts come to visit, thank goodness! Last weekend, I went to visit my sister, and my cousin came here to ‘babysit’ Margo. It is important to accept help, and keep the family up-to-date.
Margo’s hearing is going… but don’t dare tell her so! The other morning, a package came through the door with information about hearing aids, and Margo tossed it into the bin with such scorn that I just sighed. What with the short-term memory loss and the selective hearing, conversations become circular and repetitive. Sometimes, Margo needs to say something several times just to fix it in her own mind.
Margo loves to have some repetitive crafty task to do: Her tapestries are beautiful. And my sister sent me an article explaining that those repetitive tasks are really important for forgetful elderly people, and help the brain to process information. A task like that makes Margo feel useful too. She makes lovely things for us all, and we are grateful that we will always have something to remind us of her love and talent.
I call before I head up to Margo’s every morning. “Need anything at the corner shop?”
Sometimes there is no answer. Either the radio’s on and she can’t hear the phone, or she’s forgotten I’m coming and gone to the shop herself. Every time, I steel myself for what I will find when I get there. Margo lives alone, in a building meant for retired people. She’s the eldest inhabitant, and ought to have round-the-clock care, but the last time anyone suggested it she threw herself onto her bed and threw a proper toddler-style tantrum.
I don’t blame her. If someone told me I had to be babysat by some stranger nurse, I’d throw a tantrum too. So, for now, we carry on as though this will keep working. We don’t look ahead. When Margo first came out of hospital, she was very frail, and I cooked and tidied and stayed with her as much as possible. She is much better now and likes to take care of herself: I have to pretend I’m just visiting for a cup of tea at ten every morning, and help without appearing to. If an uncomfortable topic comes up, “WHY do I have to take all of these pills?” it is best not even to discuss it: The discussion will immediately be forgotten, but the cross old lady will remain. I use a time-honoured toddler tactic: “Hey, Pat has one of those little dogs, remember the ones Rosemary had? Weren’t they dreadful?” and ten minutes of merry gossip will ensue.
This is a dance, free and totally unchoreographed. If the old lady is happy and calm and thinks that everything is fine, she remembers to take her pills, and eat a healthy lunch, and sits happily with her tapestry, and chats about her old friends and her job and her grandchildren. The moment she gets worried, things start to go wrong. I get late night calls, “What day is the doctor’s appointment? Is it tomorrow? I need broccoli! How are YOU?” I have to soothe and calm, and make her feel that everything is all right, because if Margo thinks that everything is all right… why then, everything will be all right. For now, anyway. We will see what happens next, when we get there.
by Nan Sheppard
Photo graciously provided by dragonflysky, through a Creative Commons license, some rights reserved