Mother of a Sunday

By David Jolley

There is a way of talking in the Black Country which uses ‘of’, where most would expect ‘on’: So – ‘She died of a Sunday’ translates as – ‘She died on a Sunday’.

This is Mothering Sunday – the fourth Sunday in Lent. The tradition goes back to at least the 16th century when people working away from home, especially those ‘in service’, were allowed to return to their mother church. They would visit their family and often take gifts, including a Simnel cake and flowers – a short break of celebration in the austere days of Lent. The modern equivalent has built on the giving of presents, special meals and cards. Some have become critical of it as a commercial jamboree – but for many it remains a time of genuine reflection on the care received from mothers, sometimes despite great difficulties, more often simply working through the years of dependency and vulnerability toward adulthood and freedom. Mums remain important right to the end.

In a week where there have been many show-stopper headlines which relate to older people: assisted dying and reduced life expectancy for poorer women to name but two, Anne Penketh’s ‘My mother has Alzheimer’s. She deserves better than this’ is the most immediately poignant.

It is bad enough that mum’s last months will be affected by Alzheimer’s disease, a deviation from what she and the family might have hoped for, but one shared by many. But the rage is less about the natural world, much more about society’s response to it. Care for people with cancer is more easily accepted as a responsibility of the NHS. Dementia – recognised as the biggest killer in the country by the Registrar General – is often dismissed as a social phenomenon which requires care to be funded by the individual, social services or family. That is not fair. That hurts.

Finding a suitable placement for someone who becomes paranoid, disturbed and difficult to care for is not easy. It will be more expensive, and fear of the probable quality of the environment dominated by others in similar states of decompensation is awful.

Putting together the arguments for assisted dying, the increased death rate amongst the poor and the denial of healthcare status to people with dementia yields an unpleasant summary of institutionalised devaluation of people who are ‘not like us’.

Anne Penketh finds solace in the innocent enthusiasm of a carer who recognises the PERSON who is her mum, rather than recoil from the monster which DEMENTIA will be if not approached with proper respect. In their personal lives, most ordinary people are decent, loving and value others.

And I just wonder what carefully prescribed and monitored medication might do to help. Low dose of an antipsychotic might modify mum’s symptoms sufficiently for her to find peace more easily during her remaining life. But such treatment is too often denied in the face of generalised guidance informed by statistically significant but small reduction of life expectation.

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