Saturday, March 21, 2015

Apple. Table. Flag.

I've been here before - sitting in a psychogeriatrician's consulting room with a parent. The last time was with my mother while my father rode shotgun. This time it's my father who is in the hot seat while I have taken on his role as protector/interpreter.


I remember so clearly that day with my mother. 'Do you know what this is?' the doctor asked her, showing her his watch. She shook her head. 'And this?' he held up a pen. 'Do you know what this is for?' She didn't. He should have asked her if she knew who I was. That was a question she could have answered. That day at least. She comforted me there in the consulting room when I cried at her plight.

Sitting beside my father in the specialist's rooms I don't cry. I save my tears until later. Right now I am in competent mode, paying attention to my father's feelings and to what we need from this doctor.

The doctor asks us what we have come for, how he can help us. My father doesn't answer; he has no idea. He's here because he trusts me and I have brought him. I tell the doctor that my father has memory problems and that he barely sleeps at night, getting up, wandering around, confused and disoriented.

My father stares at me, his forehead furrowed in disbelief. 'I sleep very well,' he says. 'And I have a very good memory. I never forget anything.' My father is always loving and kind to me so he's not going to be rude but he's clearly puzzled and even shocked at my words.

'You don't mind if I test your memory?' the doctor asks.

'Not at all.' Actually there is some more conversation here and my father speaks slowly but articulately. Maybe he's not as bad as I feared. Maybe he's right and I'm wrong.

The doctor opens a printed test booklet. 'What's the date today?' he asks.

Dad concentrates but can't come up with an answer. This is not too bad. He's retired and spends most days at home. There's no reason for him to keep track of the exact date.

'That's fine. How about the month?'

Again Dad wracks his brain but can't find the answer. This is worse. It's easy to lose track of a day, but a whole month is a different dimension of forgetfulness.


'Now,' the doctor says, 'I'm going to say three words and ask you to remember them. Is that OK?'

My father nods. He's confident he'll be able to do this.

'Apple. Table. Flag.'

These are easy words. He'll remember them with no difficulty, especially because his oldest granddaughter grows apples on her organic farm. I say the words to myself, committing them to my own memory.

'Could you spell the word world backwards for me?' the doctor asks.

This is hard but Dad can't even manage one letter. He doesn't even try.

Now we're back to those words. Apple. Table. Flag. Does he remember them?

My father shakes his head. He doesn't say that one was a type of fruit and one was a piece of furniture, that they're on the tip of his tongue. He has no idea at all.

There are other tests but he fails them all. After a while the doctor says to me that he won't continue with the test; there's no point. It would only be upsetting.

We don't discuss the diagnosis. It's clear my father is suffering from dementia.

The doctor writes a prescription for a low dose of an anti psychotic to mitigate the sundowner effect that is common amongst dementia sufferers and that has my father confused and agitated in the late afternoon, and to help him sleep at night. At this point my father has fallen asleep in his chair.

We make another appointment. The doctor wants to give Dad some blood tests and see how he's going on the medication. Dad offers his hand, thanks the doctor who has been gentle and kind, and we leave.


At home I google the medication. Its side effects can include weight gain, dry mouth, drowsiness and even stroke or sudden death.

This is not what I want for my father but at the moment he dozes on and off all day and virtually doesn't sleep at all during the night. He gets agitated and aggressive with his carers and even with my older brother whom he adores. His behaviour is hard on him and even harder on his carers.

But I still feel I have failed him, that I should be able to find a way to manage him without resorting to these drugs.

And worse, I feel that I have caused the dementia. I took him to this doctor. It's because of me that he had these tests, which have led to a diagnosis, exposed his weakness to the world. If I hadn't taken him it wouldn't be true. He wouldn't have dementia. He'd just be old.

I know that what I have done is the responsible thing, that in fact I should have done it earlier. But in my heart I feel guilty of taking a lamb to the slaughter.

It's too early to tell how well the medication will work for my father. But the best I can expect is that he is calmer and sleeps better at night. That he's more 'manageable'. I feel cruel and even evil, though I don't know what else I can do.

There'll be more assessments and blood tests and I'm looking into respite care for a short period while two of his main carers are away, though he may not agree to go.

I just wish I could do better. I just wish I knew how to do this better. That's all.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Shut up and Write



It felt like the first day of school for me this morning. Dressed in my Pilates clothes, I was off to my Shut up and Write group, then to Pilates, then to meet Farmdoc for coffee at our regular coffee place. This was my routine last year but I’ve had a long break over the summer holidays. Like my youngest granddaughters today was my first day back.

Have you heard of Shut up and Write? It’s a worldwide movement that began in San Francisco and is particularly popular amongst academic writers, but works for any kind of writing. The idea is to meet in a cafe with a group of people and a timer and just write. There’s opportunity for socialising but it’s amazing how productive you can be in the company of others.

We use the Pomodoro Technique, which breaks the time up into blocks. In the breaks between blocks you’re not supposed to talk about what you’re working on (though sometimes we do). Most people find that when they return after the short break they can get to a deeper level in their writing. That certainly happens for me.

We meet at 9.15, order coffee, chat for 15 minutes, write for 25 minutes, break for a five minute chat and then write for another 25 minutes. There’s usually a bit more chat at the end, sometimes another 25-minute writing session for those who don’t need to rush off.

We’ve experimented with different venues – a couple of different cafes and a meeting room in a hotel – but the cafĂ© where we meet at the moment suits us best. They know our coffee orders and don’t seem to mind us spending an hour or so taking up precious table space. They’ve also grown used to our bursts of chatter, stretches of silence.

The time we met in a hotel, the young male manager set us up in a room to ourselves around a large boardroom table, but then tried to engage us in conversation about what we were doing when we were clearly wanting to concentrate and write in silence. I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d have been so intrusive and condescending  (‘We’re all working hard here, aren’t we?’) if we’d been a group of men. Just a thought.

The Pomodoro technique works so well for me that I’ve begun trying to use it at home too. In the five minute breaks I get up, maybe do a few stretches, maybe make a cuppa or get a glass of water, maybe do some chores.

These Monday morning Shut up and Write sessions set me up for the writing week. I use them for all sorts of things. This morning I spent the first block writing this. Sometimes I write in my journal. Mostly I work on my novel, which is what I did in my second block.

Conversations are short, we’re different ages and stages and working on all kinds of projects, but we have in common that writing is important to us. When I spot these people around town I feel connected to them but also to the life of the town. It's the beginning for me of a sense of community here in this new place.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

This Time Last Year

Here are some photos from a year ago, of a dinner our friends Annie and Janet made for us on the bridge at Onemilebridge:


Last Thursday twelve months ago was our last day in our Tasmanian house. We spent the day cleaning as the movers hauled our numbered and catalogued boxes into their truck.

Farmdoc concentrated on the shed while inside the house I moved from room to room, cupboard to cupboard, scrubbing, wiping, dusting. A friend came by to collect one last load for the tip and a few cast offs to distribute. Late in the afternoon the new owners arrived for a last minute inspection and to ask a few questions. The real estate agent who'd brokered the sale came too, bearing a gift. I barely lifted my head from my cleaning.

I can still feel the current of tension that seethed through my body. I was determined to leave the house as clean as possible for its new occupants. I wanted this young couple to have an easy start in their new home.

I think I was also hiding in those cupboards and drawers from the magnitude of the change.



We were leaving a house, a dog, a property, a village and friends. A life we'd built up over a lot of years.

Our decade at Onemilebridge had been important to us in many ways. And now it was over.



That afternoon, after we'd left the house as clean as we could, we drove the long way around to our next-door neighbour's house. For years we'd walked and driven through our sycamore forest or across the paddock to her place, arriving for dinner on our ATV or in gumboots. Now those paddocks and that forest didn't belong to us any more so we arrived as all her visitors did, driving up her front driveway.



We slept that night at her house and spent our last day in Tasmania gazing across at our farm, knowing that those familiar paddocks belonged to someone else now; doing some last minute chores, and having lunch with another friend.

That evening I flew to Melbourne while Farmdoc took the ferry across. Unexpectedly, our friends James and Iris saw us off, so that their dear faces were our last sight of Tasmania.

The morning of the 17th of March, a year ago yesterday, Farmdoc and I drove up the driveway of Daylesford Organics, the farm belonging to our oldest daughter and her family, in time for a welcome breakfast of pancakes and coffee. It was the beginning of the next stage in our lives.


I can feel now all the emotions that belong to that period - sadness, anxiety, fear, excitement - but I couldn't feel them then. I was numb. I think I stayed numb for months while we sorted our belongings and set ourselves up in our rented cottage.

Then, as we began the process of building a new house and a new life in a new community, without my even noticing it I started to thaw out. But that's a story for another time.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Vale Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger has died. He was 94, a great age in anyone's language, but I am so sad.

Today I am listening to that oh so familiar voice singing 'To everything there is a season...a time to be born and a time to die...' Of course I know that, but my foolish aching heart doesn't know it, so I listen and I cry into the lemon meringue icing I am making, and I think back to the first time I heard him sing.

I was thirteen and my aunt and uncle had taken me to see him perform at the Melbourne Town Hall. I fell in love immediately. With that voice, the tuneful alto soaring above the crowd as he cajoled a stuffy Melbourne audience, many of the men in suits and ties, to lose their inhibitions and to sing with him. With the sound of his 12-string guitar and banjo. With his genuineness. With his belief in the innate goodness of people, that we really could overcome.

I was hooked.

Every time I saved enough money for a record I'd tram into the city and think, 'this time I'll get something different'. But each time I'd put on the headphones in the booth and hear Pete's voice and succumb, adding another Pete Seeger LP to my collection.

But Pete returned the favour. He introduced me to other musicians: The Weavers of course, Woody Guthrie, and on and on down to the line, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Paxton, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen.


Pete Seeger kept me company through my awkward teen years. I'd shut myself up in my room, listen to his songs and feel less lonely, see that there were people out there who were good and decent and passionate about the planet and its inhabitants, that there was in fact a bigger world outside the confines of my suburban life.

There was even more to Pete than this, but I didn't know any of it then. That he built his own house, a log cabin, from instructions he found in the public library. His bravery in the face of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, preferring the risk of jail to naming names.

'A time to dance and a time to mourn.' For me now it's a time to mourn. And a time for giving thanks. Thank you so much, Pete. For everything.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Welcome Bee and Ra

I know, I know. Long time no blog. I’ve left you in suspense all these months. The last time I wrote we were weeping outside the locked gates of Eden. Did they cross Bass Strait alive? you wondered. Did they realise that they'd made a huge mistake, and do they now wish to return to the south island?

Well, yes and no. Yes, we made the move safely, all our possessions and ourselves intact. And here we are, close to our two oldest daughters and their families, ensconced in a rented cottage while across two paddocks our new house takes shape. So no, we don’t want to return.


We arrived to fanfare, goodie baskets and a welcoming committee.


The last couple of weeks back there and the first couple of weeks here were hard. I felt bruised. There was the physical work involved in sorting and packing all our possessions and then at the other end unpacking what we thought we’d need for the next twelve months, and storing the rest. But mostly it was the emotional work of closing a chapter in our lives. We’d been in Tasmania for over two decades!


I spent hours, while I should have been wrapping things in butchers paper, reading over my old journals. I burnt a lot of them. Right now I don’t completely understand why I did that and whether I’m going to be sorry later. It’s just that there were dozens, and they were full of whingeing about long-resolved problems. It seemed like I didn’t even know who that person was any more. I thought if I died (and this move felt like it might just kill me) then I didn’t want to subject anyone else to having to read that stuff. And those books took up so much room. Anyway, there are still a couple of boxes worth to go into my new study, and I'm constantly filling up new ones. It's a habit - or perhaps an addiction.


And now we love it here.


We’re here to cheer up and to cheer on, to help and to be helped, and to enjoy our daughters and their families. We are around to celebrate the small achievements and the huge ones, to bear witness to milestones. We're close to good coffee and a great community, and I'm near enough to my dad to be able to see him regularly.


It's been especially amazing to be part of the excitement of the launch of Vantastic, Kate's wonderful book.


How lucky are we? Don't answer that; I know the answer already. Very lucky indeed!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Recipe For Moving House


Take one reasonably settled existence. 


Add some hopes, some dreams, a dash of ageing. 

Throw together the past, the present, the future, some friends, some family, a pinch of mortality. 


Fold this mixture into a house full of possessions – furniture, books, china and cooking pots - and a shed full of stuff.


Wrap in butchers paper and pack in cardboard boxes. 




Pour into a 20-foot container.


Drive down the driveway, taking in all that you see


Adding slowly that this will be the last time 


Lock the padlock on the gate - with you keyless on the other side


Ship goods across Bass Strait and follow in ute.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Alzheimer's and Me


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Alzheimer’s. It began with a letter I wrote for the Mental Health Research Institute’s annual appeal. This is the photograph of my parents that is at the top of that letter:


Mum was in the very early stages of dementia then, but still very beautiful and vivacious, and my parents were still head over heels in love with each other. The full letter is here. Here are a few extracts from it:

About 300,000 of my mother's fellow Australians are living with dementia right now. Every six minutes a new sufferer is diagnosed. But we felt alone.

and

With Alzheimer's there's no kidney you can donate, no body part that can be amputated, no chemo to try. No drug cure. Nothing. Just patience and anguish. And then more the next day. And then again. And again. For years. With only death at the end.

and

It's predicted that without any significant medical breakthrough there'll be one million sufferers by 2050

If you'd like to donate to the Institute here's the link for that.


Then at the beginning of December I participated in a Dementia in Hospitals forum, a joint project of Alzheimer's Australia Victoria, and the Victoria and Tasmania Dementia Training Study Centre.


It was an interesting forum. The bad news is that nobody talked of a cure or even of a known cause. If there is a cure, it's at least five years away, and inside the brains of many of us baby boomers those pesky amyloid plaques and tau tangles are forming already. Tick, tick, tick...The statistics are terrifying and getting worse. It's strange how complacent people are about this. Denial, I guess. Ignore it and it'll go away...


The good news is that many dedicated and talented researchers are investing a lot of time working out how best to look after sufferers in acute care hospitals, which must be the worst, most frightening, places for them.


My speech was about my family's experience with Alzheimer's and in particular about how confusing and frightening hospitals were for my mother, and how hard we had to work to make the situation tolerable for her.


After all this I turned to a book called, The Alzheimer's Prevention Program, by Gary Small and Gigi Morgan


I didn't really expect a miracle. I suppose I was seeking a glimmer of hope.

The book is easy to read and well set out. It contains results from lots of studies and provides a recipe for healthy living. Remember that line, maybe from Laugh-In, 'Healthy mind, healthy body - take your pick'? Well, this book provides a template for both.

There are sections on nutrition, physical and mental exercise and reducing stress.

No miracles though, and no guarantees either. What the authors suggest is that by following these recommendations you can possibly postpone Alzheimer's by years. And if you can delay the disease long enough then maybe there'll be a cure, or you'll die of something else before it even manifests at all, or to any great extent.

Better than nothing.

For me the most encouraging thing I've read recently is that if the members of your family who have developed dementia have done so after age 65 then you are at no more risk than the general population. I felt a weight lift off me when I read that. I had assumed because my mother developed Alzheimer's in her 70s, then the disease was sitting at the end of my bed waiting for me. It still may be, I guess. I'll just have to get up earlier than it does and follow as many of the book's prescriptions as I can: eat a healthy diet, exercise my body and exercise my brain.

And then time will tell.

People who knew my mother always said I looked just like her. I was so proud of that. Now it makes me nervous that our similarity will be my downfall. Whereas before I used to seek ways in which we were alike, now I find myself looking for the differences between us.