It’s occurred to me that one of the side-effects of Nana’s Alzheimer’s is a gradual erosion of boundaries. She’s losing all sense of hers, and if she had half a clue it was happening, I’m confident she’d be mortified. Around at her place last Friday, I went through the ‘case book’ the Uniting Care people keep there, getting an update on Nana’s condition. How they’ve found her, basically. Cooperative, uncooperative, friendly, hostile, etc. I was particularly looking for the Friday visitor’s report, because no one turned up while I was there, and I hadn’t been able to reach anyone there the Friday before. Had something happened? Was there a problem with the Friday carer that I didn’t know about?
“Is there another lady who comes, Nana?” I asked. “Someone other than Gayl?”
Gayl is quite the scribe; she leaves detailed accounts of her every visit. Nana likes Gayl.
“Who comes?” Nana asked, startled.
“Is there someone else who comes on Fridays?”
“No,” she said. “Nobody’s been for months. Nobody comes.”
I looked down at the case book. Gayl was there two days before. Right. Slot that one away in the She Has No Idea of the Passage of Time file, which, needless to say, is bulging.
“There was someone who came once,” she blurted. “I didn’t like her, she was as tall as a house.”
“That’s hardly her fault,” I said.
“You should have seen her,” Nana continued, her lip curling horribly. “She’s certainly in the wrong job. The size of her. She was as tall as this ceiling. Oh no, I did not like her at all.”
Let me get this straight, I thought. The major – or only – criticism of this carer was how tall she was? I couldn’t quite believe it. I needed confirmation.
“Was there something else you didn’t like about her, Nana?”
Nana looked sharply at me, exactly as though I had severe learning difficulties and she pitied my stupidity.
“She was like a giant,” Nana said, sounding out each word slowly. “As high as this ceiling. They shouldn’t be sending her out into people’s homes looking like that.”
“Nana,” I reasoned, “no one chooses their height.”
“Oh well,” Nana scoffed, her tone derisive. “I suppose not.”
I need to learn when to let things go.
“But they don’t,” I insisted. “There’s not one thing she can do about being tall, is there?”
Right. Impasse. Nana was decided. That woman was DELIBERATELY too tall for Nana’s tastes. End of story. I shook my head and thought “Wow, this is kooky reasoning,” and forgot about it. Until, that is, I stuck my head into the chemist’s. What I forgot to tell you last week was that Amanda, the assistant, knew all about the tall lady too.
“And your nana says to me, ‘I didn’t like that tall dark one, not that I’m racist or anything,’ and I said no, no, of course not, and she says ‘But I didn’t like that dark one, oh no.'”
“Oh,” I said, surprised. “She didn’t mention anything but the height to me. I didn’t know the carer was dark.”
“Oh yes,” nodded Amanda. “She’s funny, your nana. There’s a man who’s often in here at the same time, he comes in for his medication too, and she’s taken a bit of a dislike to him. ‘Is the pain in the arse here?’ she’ll say. She’ll stand in the door and call it out. ‘Is the pain in the arse here?'”
“Oh my god,” I said. “How embarrassing.”
“And sometimes,” Amanda went on, “they’ll have been sitting over there together, and she’ll get up and stage whisper to me on the way out. ‘I’m leaving,’ she’ll say. ‘I’ve had enough of the pain in the arse. I’ll be back later when he’s gone.'”
I thought then of something else Nana had just said to me back at her flat. Out of nowhere, she said “You see all these young girls these days out and about, and they’ve all got such pretty faces. They look like such pretty young things, but when they turn around” – and she struck the classic fishing shot pose – “their arses are this big, they’re as wide as a bus. Big fat arses on all those pretty young girls. It’s disgusting. Disgraceful. I would never let myself get that like.”
But it was only later, while I was standing in the chemist digesting the fact that one of Nana’s problems with the carer was the colour of her skin – yet another thing, like height, that no one decides for themselves – that I saw all these comments as part of a general lack of awareness on Nana’s part. What’s ‘appropriate’ behaviour, and what’s not, sure, there’s no question I was mortified, but also, what’s reasonable, and what’s not. It’s a breakdown of her ability to reason that she disliked the carer solely on the basis of her height and colour. It’s a breakdown of social boundaries, on the other hand, that leads her to announce to the entire chemist that the harmless old gent on the seat next to her is ‘a pain in the arse.’ It’s very rude. Even if it’s true, even if he’s an insufferable dullard and smells bad to boot, it’s bad manners of Nana to say so. And she’s always had very good manners. The grab bag of fun that is Alzheimer’s just never stops: now she’s literally ‘forgetting herself.’