Real Life

‘My mum’s battle with dementia’

Ex MP and columnist Deborah Coddington writes about how the condition affected her darling mother.

One of Mum’s favourite pieces of jewellery was a marcasite brooch in the shape of a lizard. Passed down from her mother, she wore it frequently, even when, aged 89, she moved into a rest home. One day I found her poking a darning needle into this lizard, picking out the marcasite and admonishing the lizard for “being a bad boy”.

“He just won’t do what he’s told,” she explained. “At least I think he’s a he. No-one has ever worked out if he’s a he or a she.”

Before more harm could be done, I deliberately misinterpreted the catch was loose, pretended I’d fixed it, wrapped “him” in a hankie and put him away. Incidents like this are examples of my late mum’s dementia I can tell the public about.

Others will remain private to protect her dignity. During my three years looking after Mum, there were times I struggled to hold back tears, wondering what was happening to scramble the brain of a woman who’d owned her own kindergarten, raised five successful children and run a sheep stud. Our roles had reversed now. I was in charge and had to soothe her.

Sometimes in public she lost her filter, rudely commenting on others’ appearance, especially if they were overweight. And she was fond of telling me how unloving I was as a child compared with my brothers, who just adored her.

Thank goodness for dark glasses and loyal brothers. I’m grateful for our small Martinborough community where everyone knew Mum – they loved and supported her when she was in her own home and when she moved into the small, private rest home.

Rest-home care today is not about boiled cabbage and stale urine. Residents, no matter how inactive, are encouraged to take part in exercise, quizzes, outings and happy hour. I was in and out of Mum’s rest home several times each week. I took my puppy to the hospital unit when she was eight weeks old to the delight of the oldies – particularly those bed-ridden. What do muddy paws and slobber matter when smiles come to faces of those who are in bed all day?

If I have any regrets, I wish I’d known earlier Mum had dementia. It wasn’t until I visited the Alzheimers New Zealand website not long before she died that I realised Mum had been suffering from stage-two dementia (forgetting to eat, neglecting personal hygiene, poor judgment) when she was still determined to live in her own home.

She was only a five minute drive from me, but habitually fell in her garden, tearing her parchment-thin skin. The district nurses labelled her one of their “frequent flyers”, they had to change her dressings so often.

She refused to have meals on wheels, so I’d cook dinners and take them to her. She said she’d eaten them, but later I found she’d thrown them away, or hidden them around the house. I could have saved myself so much unhappiness if I’d known earlier that my mother was unwell and not winding me up.

Naturally we want to live in our own homes as long as possible, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. As Mum found when she moved into Wharekaka rest home, having three good meals a day, your laundry done for you, being warm and good company is not a bad thing.

Slowly, her speech began to deteriorate. She’d struggle for words and sometimes we’d have a good laugh when she said something wacky. She still loved going for drives with my brothers and was never beyond admonishing them with her eyes if they’d put on too much weight.

“Hello, darling,” she could still say to me, though I wasn’t always sure she knew who I was – but I knew who she was. On Anzac day, my brothers and I sat by her bed as she died. Patricia Marie Coddington, NZAF, Regt No, W3133 Women’s Air Leader WWII 1939-1945, was in her 91st year.

She was once a beautiful woman who worked on Tiger Moth aeroplanes, mending their engines and instruments so pilots could go back into battle, risking their lives on her skills. Mum’s flying free from dementia now. I’ll wear the lizard brooch, as one day my daughters will. We won’t replace the missing marcasite – that wouldn’t be appropriate somehow. And I still don’t know if he’s a he or a she.

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