Learning to Savor Mum's Stories


Mum is full of stories. We all are, of course. But the story part of E’s brain works in very particular ways. These days, it’s programmed to go off to specific stimuli the exact same way, every time.

We drive past A, and Mum tells me about B. I make Y for afternoon tea, Mum recalls Z. The only thing that doesn't prompt her is smells. Like most people with Alzheimer's, Mum’s sense of smell is muted—she can't notice anything but the strongest odor. Put one of her beloved roses to her nose, and amazingly, she can always name the variety, but she fails to pick up even the faintest scent.

“It’s very subtle, dear.” That's code for, “I can't smell a thing.”

It makes me wonder how she can enjoy her food. But she does. Without a sense of smell, her taste must be seriously compromised. When you think about the power of smell in triggering memories, all those prompts must be gone.

But the stories, the stories, the stories. My mother gives me the first five words and I already know exactly what's coming. The words, the emphasis, even the inflection. Together, Mum and I could write an index of first lines.

The repetition could make me crazy, and sometimes it does. On good days, I find ways to cope. On bad days, I’m rubbish.

The trick is to keep the conversation fresh. Like tennis, you hit the ball and your opposite number whacks it back. So I amuse myself, and make Mum happy, by priming her shots.

As we approach A, I ask her about B. Of course, she’s delighted to fill me in, often with details I’ve not heard before.

At afternoon tea, I offer Y, simultaneously inquiring about Z. It’s a dance and it makes both partners very happy. Instead of dreading the inevitable stories, I’m deliberately eliciting them and the conversation takes off.

“You know dear, when I was brought up we were all taught the art of conversation...”

Stories, we’re full of them.

Sarah Jane is a freelance writer/researcher and part-time caregiver for her mother Eleanor* who has dementia and lives at a rest home nearby. Sarah and her mother spend Saturdays enjoying each other’s company, pottering about and having the occasional adventure. Sarah lives in New Zealand where she writes and speaks about dementia-related issues.

Saturdays with Mum

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What a great way to "change it up". When my mother started telling a story she'd told a hundred times before, I would ask her a detail about part of the story. And she reveled in answering the question.

Asking your parent a question about their past, like what types of dances did they do, etc., is a wonderful way to pry out memories.
I understand the story telling. Like you, some days I do great at receiving the stories well and some days, not so well. Thank you for reminding me that I am not alone in the caregiving world.
How I wished I had asked my parents more questions about their youth. Since they have passed, I have found old photos and wonder what the photos were all about. And photos of people I don't know. Like who was that really cute guy Mom was hugging when she was 20 years old?

I know my Dad and his three brothers use to invent things. One time they rigged up a gasoline powered washing machine. Wish I knew what their Mom had thought about it and was she afraid of using it :)