Hanging out with Nana: dinosaurs and dementia

Part of our greatly extended Christmas this year has included a visit from my 81-year-old Mam for a few days. 

Until last month, she had been living in Ireland since 2004, when she moved back over to re-connect with the beloved County Clare that she left with her new husband and baby me in 1972. After five years of young family life in East Cheshire, pining for the West of Ireland while she pushed first me and then my little sister around in a buggy in the shadow of the Peak District, she’d spent the next 27 years in the happy compromise of Anglesey in north Wales. My Dad had died in 1997, only a few months after their silver wedding anniversary, and the grief damaged my Mam mentally and spiritually; while her body and physical energy continued to push her onwards through life, mentally and philosophically she had lost interest.

Independent living out in Clare gradually became a worry for us as Mam’s memory and judgment became more of a concern, until we made the decision she should come back to the UK. She is based with my younger brother and his family in Wales with the plan that she comes and takes extended breaks with us in Leeds, somewhere she is able to go to Mass every day, which is very important to her.

 The first get together 
This also means that she becomes a more tangible presence in the life of J-Bone (and her other grandchildren) and he has the opportunity to build a real relationship with her. As someone who only has memories of one grandparent, this feels a very valuable connection. There is also the idea that spending time with curious little humans keeps older people interested in life and can also teach infants about other rhythms of life: slower, less stressed rhythms that aren’t focused on getting their coat on them or brushing their teeth. As J-Majesty has spent a lot of time staying at his Ma and Pa’s (his other grandparents) throughout his little life, he has developed a completely independent relationship with them that should help him fashion stronger social bonds with people outside his immediate clan. That’s the plan, anyway; being able to go out every now and then is only a happy by-product, you understand.

Part of my parenting adventure has included realising how similar my fathering patterns resemble how Mam was with us: working in the kitchen with the radio on while we played or watched TV in the front room; squalling into low-level irritation on a quite frequent basis at various domestic challenges; and tickling with fingers of iron. Without wanting to lie down on your leather couch and invite you to stroke your luxuriant white beard, dear reader, there was a narrative too that I was someone who had talents and brains but wasn’t using them as God intended, a script I feel I have continued writing for myself throughout my adult life and to which I don’t want J-Bomb to subscribe. She was a child of the newly-minted Irish Republic in the 30s and 40s, who spent pocket money on butterscotch and Gangster movies, danced all night long but didn’t drink, did all her schooling in Irish before they changed the way it was written and cut her off from a language she loved, and started a singing career that still continued into her 80s. Her idea of the responsibilities of parenting differ from mine. But the unconscious patterns and semi-conscious beliefs are often strikingly similar.

Unfortunately, one of the effects of the early dementia she has to manage now is that she becomes fixated on the idea that she is a burden and that people don’t want her around. Her insistent refrain that ‘You won’t have to put up with me much longer’, usually delivered with something sardonic midway between a chuckle and a snort, by turns amused, irritated or saddened us. It felt saddest when it tarnished her relationship with J, becoming slightly toxic and narcisstic in that every time J became upset about being told to switch off CBeebies or come home from nursery, she would interpret his unhappiness as dislike of her. Thankfully, J is too young to be swayed by these ideas and can make up his own mind about Nana, even if that swings between missing her when she’s gone but also wanting her out of his normal bedroom. He wears the complications of human interaction on his sleeve like Cub Scout badges where adults have learnt to try and hide them. But there are cuddles and there is play.

My hope is that he will continue to probe her out of her demential shell, winkle some twinkle out of her while she is still about, and help keep her with us, mentally and physically, for a while yet. The arrangement also feels like a connection to times of larger families where the fears and excitements of domestic life ran over the borders that have grown up around the nuclear family over the last century. Unlike Call-Me-Dave, I don’t subscribe to the agenda that families are a universal and highly cost-effective  solution to all of society’s ills – funny how easy many people with plenty of ready cash find it to overlook the enormous role that paper played in smoothing the path for them – but when it works it can bolster the sense of self and the ability to cope enormously. Mothers-in-law can be irritating as all Hell, but they and other relations add a bit more biodiversity sauce to the cultural gene pool as well as relaxing the tensions of intergenerational struggle over brushing teeth, getting wellies on and managing biscuit consumption.

J-Blip and I drove Mam back to meet my brother and his son in Manchester so they could take her back to the Lleyn Peninsula for another while; we also took the chance to meet up with more friends and their new babies and foster some sense of a broader, more communal family life, the inverted Sartrian sense that life is about being with other people. It’s a little sad this morning that she isn’t rattling around, worrying about getting to Mass, buying newspapers, arguing with J about what TV to watch, and rooting forgetfully in the cupboard for chocolate biscuits. The last couple of days in particular were lovely as she told me what a great job I was doing and how like my lovely Dad I was. 


In the past, we dreaded her visits a little, visits that drew tears with occasional barbs about Dr L’s choice to work or other lifestyle business, but it feels a bit less of an issue these days and more part of her condition. I feel like my brighter, happier Mam is being allowed to shine through the cracks even now and then, even as the future is more uncertain – in a chillingly certain kind of way.

Safe to say, we’re looking forward to having her back her soon.

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