He’s a stand-up comic who’s known for being a Grumpy Old Man, so when his mum Hazel was diagnosed with dementia, comedian and actor Arthur Smith naturally prepared himself for the worst. However, nearly ten years later, life with Hazel isn’t quite as bleak as he’d anticipated. Here Arthur, 61, shares what he’s learnt about dementia
Dementia was the illness Mum most dreaded, it was her greatest fear. She’d watched her own mum die with it, she knew how it ended. After my father died in 2004 she began to feel that something was happening to her and it was really hard. I remember one time she asked ‘is it tomorrow today, or now?’ which I thought was a rather good encapsulation of how she felt.
When Mum was finally diagnosed, around nine years ago, she became so depressed that I think she wanted to die. She always loved reading, especially poetry. Words were her thing. I found a collection of her diaries from that period of time and they’re heart-breaking.
As for me, I thought I knew what dementia was and what to expect, after all I’d watched my gran live with it. But I soon learn that everyone experiences dementia in different ways. Some aspects of Mum’s illness, such as when she stopped washing or when she started drinking far too much, caught me by surprise. My brothers and I muddled through, doing our best, but it was a fairly bleak time.
Like Mum, I’ve always loved poetry. One evening, after receiving a phone call from one of her neighbours, I wrote this which pretty much summed up how I felt:
Pulling up late
After the party,
they see her,
standing in the street.
She is looking, she says,
For a lift to London.
She needs to get home
‘Hazel,’ they tell her,
‘This is your home –
‘you live here, in this house.
London is 30 miles away.’
The door is open.
They take her in
and see she has packed a bag
(if a jumper and a packet of biscuits count as packing).
It is 35 years since you left London
to live, as you liked to say, ‘in the shires.’
But there she still is
that grammar school girl
from Camberwell Green
kissing sailors and dancing
In Trafalgar Square
It is VE day
And the rest of the century
Looking back, this was one of my lowest points. It wasn’t long after that Mum moved into a care home, and after that her life began to improve.
Seeing an improvement
I’m pleased to say she’s now miles better. A combination of being well looked after and drinking only the odd glass of wine means she’s usually calm, clean, sober and safe, and generally living in the moment. If you can’t remember what your last moment was then that’s your only option.
We’re lucky that she’s still very verbal and even reads poems to other residents sometimes. She can be quite hilarious. She loves walking especially in Autumn. Yesterday we sat on a bench looking at the Autumn trees and had a lengthy conversation about whether she would like to be a tree. Sometimes we just laugh and laugh.
But she does still have moments when she becomes very distressed, particularly when it’s time for me to say goodbye. I’ve learnt to slip away quietly now, though that was very hard at first, but one of the consolations of her dementia is that these awful moments seem to pass quite quickly, and five minutes later she’ll be laughing again. I’ve also learnt never to contradict her – a beginner’s mistake – or ask what she did yesterday.
Mum isn’t the same person she was, and it’s getting harder for her to identify people she knows, but I can still see my mother there – and most of the time, she can still see me. I guess another one of dementia’s consolations is that the person you love does eventually forget they’ve got it…maybe that’s something to hang onto when things are really tough.