On a group walking holiday in October, several of my fellow perambulators turned out to be going through the same phase in life -“sorting out m’ mother”. We concluded that this might be the theme for the next round of reality shows, with participants undertaking to perform a different challenge each week – Return The Betterware Catalogue Just Once Without Buying Something, Get Her To Eat Something Before Its Use By Date, or Persuade Her To Do/Watch/Think Something Very Slightly Different. A panel of experts guide the viewers to adjudicate on whether parent or offspring in each pairing is less entitled to a future (Working Title: Dignitas or Disinheritance.)
Now I should make it clear that my mother, at 83, has lost nothing mentally, though she started from a low baseline. Overhearing Clare In the Community on Radio 4, she successfully recognised the voice of Sally Phillips, and identified the bands Spandau Ballet and Blue in a picture round on Pointless. It’s basically below the clavicle that her demons are legion, with hips, knee and feet, accompanied by bulk, rendering her almost immobile – she’s not been out of the house since she came out of hospital 21 months ago. I dutifully charge her mobility scooter battery once a month, but she’s too litheless to get on it any more.
However, retaining one’s faculties into old age doesn’t seem to extend to using them. The whole raison d’etre for the elderly seems to be to manoeuvre into a situation where you never have to think again – everything is kept where it has always been kept in spite of growing inconvenience (lack of bend and diminishing height render many cupboards inaccessible), routines are set in granite, and utensils and supplies are stockpiled “so you’ve got them, you don’t have to worry”. Every granny cranny I venture into throws up more preposterously accumulated clutter – there are 5 devices for channelling urine, how many orifices does it emerge from? (I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’s OAPs’ Film Club included the gem Desperately Leaking Susan). I found one drawer entirely full of “things to make the room smell nice,” although after 30 years stuck in a dressing table they no longer smell of anything. Of course, a house with an old person, 40-year old carpets and, over three decades, more than a score of cats, has no need for things to make the rooms smell nice.
Inevitably her life revolves around the TV, but despite the abundance of channels, she watches the same programmes over and over again – 263 episodes of Frasier are continually recycled on Channel 4 every six months and she’s dutifully watched every one for the last 10 years. Anything with an auction is compulsory viewing – if she has a visitor (never welcome) she’ll record Homes Under the Hammer or Bargain Hunt to watch later, regardless of whether they’re repeats. In the afternoons it’s quiz shows, which she watches to foster contempt for people who don’t know something that she does. Her brand of Christianity revolves around her desire to go to heaven to help God out with the judging – I think she feels The Old Guy’s gone a bit soft, and given the chance she will add divine retribution for people who get questions wrong about the British monarchy, people who clap themselves when they get correct answers (I’m with her on that one), and above all contestants who say that they would spend their prize money on a holiday. “You spend it all and it’s gone” she complains, whereas it ought to be put aside to buy mobility aids and cat food in your old age.
In order to have tea without always having to go to the kitchen, I bought her a little thermos (she had half a dozen thermii already of course, but they were all unwieldy camping-style vessels); she used it once, washed it up, put it in the cupboard and hasn’t used it since, but continues to bemoan how little tea she’s had. The tea she does make often gets slopped onto her trolley as she shuffles from kitchen to chair, so I fished out a large builder’s mug which she could half-fill without spilling. She used it once, washed it up, put it in the cupboard and hasn’t used it since. She likes crusty bread, so when I found some reduced-to-clear in the Co-op I bought her some. “But I haven’t got any more soup” she complained. I checked the cupboard and found she had plenty of Cup-a-Soups. “But I don’t have bread with Cup-a-Soups.” But you could, I pointed out. A week later the bread, now more fusty than crusty, was still in the fridge. She can never get to the phone if it rings while she’s out of her chair; she has a cordless phone which she could carry round with her, but she “doesn’t have any pockets in these cardigans.” A rummage in her wardrobes revealed more than a dozen cardigans with pockets, “but I don’t wear those.” But you could, I point out. Can you see a pattern emerging here?
My grandmother in her last years became similarly stubborn, and my exasperated mother used to say, “boys – never let me get like that” and we’d say “Mum – you already are”. Now, among the junk, I found a little ornamental bell, and I keep this on the mantelpiece and ring it every time she does something reminiscent of her mother.
Besides my mother, there’s also her cat, which she acquired as a mouse deterrent while I was away in China. This feline inexplicably worships me, following me around and sitting watching my every activity like an over-zealous undercover cop. I sometimes wake at night to find her sitting by my bed purring at me, and if I’m too long in the toilet she comes and pads against the door. When I’m on the exercise bike she will try to rub against my slowly revolving feet, weaving like Windy Miller between the blades of his windmill. But though my mother is the sole service provider in terms of food, Molly ignores her all day, and if I place her on my mother to be petted she scrabbles to get off immediately. “You can tell me,” I coo to her as I pick her up again, “is it the scent of death?”
In December this question is particularly pertinent, as everyone in my mother’s family (grandmother, aunt, uncle, both parents) died in the month before their birthday, so I’m holding off doing this month’s on-line Tesco order in the hope that it becomes superfluous. For Christmas I’ve promised to get her a tattoo – Do Not Resuscitate.
Do you have a mother like this?
To write for Starts at 60 and potentially win a $20 voucher, send your articles to our Community Editor here.