The Experiment


The honeymoon is over. After seven weeks back at her old rest home, Mum is feeling low. She thinks she might be depressed and keeps asking what she can do. She says she’s no use to anyone, that she has nothing to aim for, no purpose in life.

Mum is from the pull-your-socks-up generation. She feels bad for feeling bad.

Yesterday we were sitting on Mum’s bed talking about how she feels.

“I’ve been thinking,” I told Mum, “and I’d like to make a suggestion.”

“Yes?” said Mum, sitting up a little straighter.

So I told her about the Mental Health Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing—things you can do to give yourself some purpose and make you feel happier.

"Sounds good,” said Mum. “Let’s start.”

I got out the printout and pointed to the first strategy: Give.

Volunteering and community involvement have been strongly linked with positive feelings and functioning. Helping others, sharing one’s skills and resources—behaviors that promote a sense of purpose and team orientation—increase self-worth and produce a positive emotional effect.

Mum has always been crafty, constantly knitting, spinning and sewing. She is also a keen recycler and fixer. All of her adult life, Mum has run an informal mending and tailoring service for family and friends. In recent years, though, she has stopped.

So, for “Give,” the first wellbeing goal, we have come up with a two-step plan.

Step One: I will advertise Mum’s services among family and friends. On Saturdays, with my help, Mum will mend. She will provide services like darning, hemming and button replacement.

“You wouldn't believe what people can’t do anymore,” said Mum, “or don’t have time for.”

That leaves Saturdays sorted, but we still needed a project for the other days.

Since learning to knit at age nine, Mum has never stopped. Patterns and complicated projects are too taxing for her these days, so she knits scarves, scarves and more scarves. Just the other week, Mum asked about knitting for charity. So here is the second part of our plan:

Step Two: I will find a charity that wants knitting done. Mum will knit to their required specifications and I will source wool from the local op shops for her to use on these projects.

“You have to write about this,” said Mum. “We’ll call it ‘The Experiment.’ ”

I wrote that down, and then she came up with a subtitle. “The Experiment: In relation to ageing, dependent mothers.”

So we have started our experiment.

“If it works,” says Mum, “we’ll write a book.”

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.

Visit Saturdays with Mum

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Thank you do much for sharing this eith us. At the risk of sounding sentimental, you are clearly a lovely daughter to go to such lengths to help your mum to find a purpose. She did a great job of raising you. Just a's about knitting tiny blankets for pre-term babies or for the memore boxes that hospitals help parents to put together after a baby has passe away? What ever you decide to do I know that you both will be a huge Blessing in what you do. Xx
This is a wonderful, loving idea that works well in this instance and it warms my heart to learn of Sara Jane's success...Many of us though have loved ones who no longer are capable of such tasks. For my husband, we have agreed that 1) all plastic bags need to be individually folded and placed in empty tissue boxes. and 2) all movies and TV shows we watch must be "rated" for future reference. This is his job along with cutting coupons on days when he is up to it. We use childrens scissors which our grandchildre "just happened" to leave here. Everyone of our generation needs a useful task. That is the way we lived all our lives.
I love the idea of using her skills for others. My MIL had the same feelings about herself when in assisted living. I commented that she could still be a good friend to others, and so she formed a news group to watch and comment on the news, she visited others from her floor when they had to go to the attached hospital or rehab or memory care to stay in touch and be a friend. Her interest in others helped both them and her and she felt she had a purposeful life still.