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Dementia is not all doom and gloom

Blog | By Prue Leith | Dec 06, 2019

Prue Leith at a recent literary lunch

MY BROTHER INSTALLED a phone above our dotty old mother’s bath with our numbers next to it. One day she rang me. ‘Do you know, darling, it’s most odd, but I cannot get out of the bath.’

I suggested she turn onto her knees, but she was now talking about something else. ‘Mum, listen, I’ll tell you how to get out of the bath.’

‘Nonsense, darling. I know how to get out of the bath. I do it every day.’

‘OK then, do it now.’

‘Why should I? I’m very happy in it. I’ll get out in my own good time.’

I gave up, but a few minutes later the phone rang. ‘Darling, it’s most odd, but I can’t get out of the bath.’

I rang the firebrigade, and also a neighbour who promised to talk to Peggy through the window until someone arrived. Soon Mama was back on the phone. I said, ‘Don’t worry, darling, the fire brigade are on their way.’

‘What do I need the fire brigade for? I’m fine. Just thought I’d give you a ring.’

And then I heard her neighbour calling. My mother said, ‘I have to go. There’s someone at the door.’

‘But Mum, you’re stuck in the bath, remember?’

‘What nonsense…’

And so it went on. I kept her on the phone, sometimes having to ring her back if she put the phone down to ‘deal with the mad woman outside’.

After ten minutes of this she exclaimed, ‘Good Lord, there’s a policewoman in my bathroom!’

The skinny policewoman had managed to climb through her bedroom window. When I rang a little later, Mum was thrilled. ‘Darling, there are two handsome firemen and a woman police officer here. No idea why, but Elaine [the name of a neighbour, though not the right one] has made tea and we are having a lovely time.’

I found a contraption that would lower her gently into the water (and, more importantly, hoist her out of it). A man arrived to give us a demonstration. As carrying a whole bath around would have been impossible, he demonstrated his lowering device on the tap-end of a sawn-off half-bath.

‘What do you think, Mum?’

‘Two things: first I don’t want a bath in my drawing-room. And secondly, if you filled this bath the water would run straight onto the floor.’

Once I spent all day weeding her garden in the rain. And she spent all day telling me not to, and to come and have lunch (which we’d had). She also objected to my replacing her broken and rusted garden furniture. She felt sorry for it.

Next day she greeted me at the door, ‘Oh, darling, you must come and see the garden. It looks so beautiful. Your darling brother has weeded it, and look, he bought me lovely new furniture.’

One New Year’s Day I cooked lunch in her house for everyone: garlicky green salad with hot grilled chicken. We were tucking in when she suddenly stood up.

‘Darlings, I am so, so sorry. I am such a filthy cook and this is truly disgusting. Come on, we’re going out to lunch.’ Penny, my sister-in-law, protested. And we refused to budge. Soon Mama was saying, ‘This is delicious. Penny, you are such a clever cook.’

But my favourite memory is of her indignant protests when I offered her (a staunch vegetarian for forty years) the veggie menu in a restaurant. ‘Why are you giving me this? I’m not a greeny, sandalled hippy. I’ll have a steak.’