Jeanne Little was one of Australia’s biggest stars in the ‘70s, bursting on the scene as part of The Mike Walsh Show and winning fans across the country with her outrageous fashion and hilarious “Darrrrling” catchphrase.
Sadly, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2009 and more than a decade on from her diagnosis, her daughter has revealed that the Gold Logie winner – now 81 – is still alive. Speaking on ABC’s Sunday Afternoons with Louise Grimmer earlier this month, Katie Little gave a rare insight into what it’s been like for the Little family and her mother as she’s battled dementia.
In what may come as a shock to many, Katie explained that her mother first began showing symptoms of the disease when she appeared as a panellist on Beauty and the Beast in the ‘90s.
“By that point mum was sick and we didn’t know,” she explained. “Ita Buttrose in retrospect said that she knew at that point that there was something not quite right because mum’s answers, she often when in with a crazy kind of view … But by that stage she was showing signs of Alzheimer’s.”
Katie said she had “no idea” about dementia and didn’t pick up on the symptoms her mum was showing.
She explained: “I was just there sort of going, ‘Why is mum doing this?’ and ‘she’s talking about the weather all the time and isn’t this ridiculous?’”
The author said that the experience had been “horrible” and said her whole family fell apart when Jeanne got sick because she was what kept the family together. When her mother’s condition deteriorated, it was up to her and her father to keep the family going.
“It was just sort of awful,” she recalled.
During the interview, she also revealed that her father now lives in the same nursing home as Jeanne.
“They’re both in together. Mum is still alive so when mum turned 80 a year ago, someone looked on Wikipedia and contacted me and said, ‘Oh, your mother just turned 80’ and I could not believe it,” she told Louise.
“Mum’s been living with this for 10, 11 years. She might go on for another 10 years.”
Katie also wrote a book, Catch a Falling Star, to explain what it’s like to really lose someone you love to dementia. Writing the book allowed her to go back into her childhood and reliving the memories of the fun mother she grew up with, while also talking about the seriousness of Jeanne’s condition.
She said she hopes it helps other families who are going through the experience.
“When I think that dementia’s the second biggest killer in Australia and now the number one killer in Australia if you’re a woman – that statistic just absolutely blows my mind that so many people are touched by this disease and are going through really, the most heartbreaking grief that goes on for a decade or more,” she said.
Elsewhere in the interview, she said that the grief of her mother’s diagnosis “nearly pulled me under”.
“I just didn’t know where to go with it,” she said. “It was just so horrendous.”
Speaking previously about her mother’s condition, Katie said Jeanne is no longer the person she used to be. Meanwhile, Studio 10 star Craig Bennett told Starts at 60 earlier this year what it’s like visiting the iconic star in her nursing home.
“I see her still now in the nursing home where she is,” he said. “Not many people go, and that is very sad, but in talking to some people – it’s that they can’t stand to see her the way she is now, which is basically bed-ridden, she can’t talk, she can barely move, she’s just lying staring at the ceiling.”