Pop psychologists are always urging us to ‘Live in the moment’.    I do try to do this, especially when it comes to enjoying my garden and the wonderful  bird life around me.  However, as a writer  on social history and nostalgia  I also spend a lot of time thinking of the past.  As I grow older, childhood memories become increasingly precious.  Sixty years on, the  joy of Christmas and  all those other seasonal celebrations at home and school remain  clear, and yes….comforting. They form a special bond between my relatives  (especially siblings) and childhood friends.

To a large extent, memories form our identity.  But what happens when the loss of long term memory creeps up to meet short term memory loss?    My mother-in law  Jeannie now lives in this dreadful void.    She  is painfully aware of her deficits. She regularly complains  that she has lived too long. ‘There is  just nothing left for me now’, she says, and  it is difficult  to argue with her. Her days are filled with confusion and anxiety. Sometimes she ring me up and asks……’Pauline, what should I do now.’   If it’s after dinner  and her carers have made their last visit I tell her she can go to sleep.  I wonder if she remembers the past in her dreams?

She  does enjoy the weekly concerts at her residential home, but once heard, the music is instantly forgotten.  Nor does she  have the capacity for anticipatory pleasure.

Since  a recent hip fracture she can barely walk, and the physio sessions are painful and frustrating. She snaps at her carers, then apologies and feels terrible. We (and they) comfort her and  tell her it’s OK, but I know how much it upsets her. The only good thing about memory loss is that she is not troubled for more than  few minutes.

Thankfully,  she can still enjoy the pleasure of  a  loving touch.  And her eyes continue to light up at  the sight of me, and especially of  her son  Rob  (yes… she still knows us and remembers our names).  There is pleasure  still in  a puff of perfume, and  the sight  and scent of a flower.   But they are such fleeting moments  in her world of confusion and anxiety. She has lost the art of conversation, although  innate politeness sort of  gets her through.  ‘And how are you both?’  she asks constantly.  After eighteen months residence  in her care home  she introduces us repeatedly  to every member of staff;  ‘Have you met my two darlings?’

All her life she was a home maker and provider.  She was still cooking for us when she was in her late  eighties.  Now she desperately  wants to share her food with us, even when she is in hospital.   We end up eating the  ice-cream  served with her dinner,  and taking home  bananas and  little sachets of honey she squirrels away for us.


I try to find Jeannie  Christmas flowers that will survive the long journey from our home in the Blue mountains, to Sydney…where she lives. Buds are good, because she can watch them open.  Asiatic lilies are festive and she enjoys  the different containers I use.











On Christmas day itself  she wasn’t at her best. I’m not sure she realized quite what  and why we were celebrating.

Love and security from Jeannie’s beloved son and Theresa, one of the many kind staff members.

It is difficult to find suitable gifts for a 93 year old.  Even the old standby of confectionery is  out. For years Jeannie has eaten very little chocolate.. This is partly because she is convinced it’s unhealthy and partly because she likes to keep and treasure anything we give her.  When she moved into care we found chocolate novelties  she had been keeping for nearly  twenty years.  But bizarrely, she ate an entire plate of chocolates at Christmas lunch, and scarcely a mouthful of the beautifully  presented traditional meal. Of course nobody cared…she was content and temporarily  free from anxiety.

Table top dancing with Editor Des.

Her greatest joy of the day  came from my little  bear, Editor Des. He has been part of my life for so long that Jeannie has him in her tiny memory  bank along with us.

Comfort in a cuddle.


Soon after Christmas I celebrated my birthday, and Rob took me to see the musical Aladdin.  After the performance  I bought a souvenir ‘gold’  magic lamp.

Next morning I took it  around to Jeannie. Did she remember the story of Aladdin and the lamp?  Yes, she did….  vaguely, when I reminded her,  ‘OK, there are three wishes, and you can have one. Keep it secret and make sure  it’s a very important wish.’

At first she simply kissed it and clutched it close, eyes closed with the intensity of her longing.

‘You really need to rub the lamp to make it come true, Jeannie.’   I said gently, which she did, most reverently.

I hope the genie was listening.

I know what her wish was, even though she didn’t tell me.  I do hope it comes true soon.

This is the second article I have written about Jeannie and her journey.   My own darling mother died  before memory loss became  an issue, although I suspect it was waiting in the wings.  My sadness at her passing is mixed with relief that she escaped this horrible affliction.  Here is the first part of  Jeannie’s story.



  1. Be grateful for the few fleeting moments of pleasure she does have, especially seeing and remembering you, Dr Bob and Editor Des. It is so hard to watch. I know, I’ve been there. Sending love and strength to you all. M x

    • Pauline

      Yes, I would so hate it if she didn’t know us, Marcia. But I long for her suffering to be over, as she does herself. The loss of dignity is awful, although she has coped far, far better than I ever imagined.

  2. Jeannie has the love given freely by others to make her world so comfortable. I see many people in our 55+ neighborhood struggling to care for parents suffering with dementia. Family care givers are the saints who live among us. The other afternoon, my husband and I took a hot meal I had cooked to a lady who had been nursing her parents.. Her father passed away during the night a week previously and on her daily walk we spoke to her. She was burdened with grief and the need to spend as much time with her mother as possible but she was going through a difficult phase with her mother. Her mother was much sharper mentally than her father, who had passed away, was. However, her mother had fallen into being very complaining and accusatory. My husband and I spent some time visiting them. We returned home worn out and thankful that we had things in place if and when our mental health caused concern. We left our neighbor when her mother had settled down into a period of silence and she could catch up with some housework.

    • Pauline

      Oh yes,Heather.Home carers just fill me with admiration. And Alzheimers is far worse than the dementia Jeannie has. What a lovely thing to do for that poor lady. Bless you.

  3. That was a lovely article Pauline. My heart aches for the elderly as they lose bits and pieces of themselves. My mother also passed away early, as a result of breast cancer, and my father, fortunately, retained most of his memories, until he passed at 90. My mother in law is 87 this year and is still in her own home, determined to fight to keep her independence. We can only hope to do as well.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Dana. I do hope your mother-in-law can remain independent. Jeannie was in her own apartment until 18 months ago.I have a dear friend who is 88, but bright as a button, loves Facebook and her classical music, books and garden. One of the lucky ones.

  4. Thank you for sharing these poignant moments. My own mother will be 90 soon and while she is a little forgetful (aren’t we all?), I am truly grateful we talk daily and share lots of happy memories.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Christine. How lucky you are to still have your mother, and especially to be able to share memories. My own mother died in her sixties, 35 years ago. I still miss dreadfully.

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