Something nice happened last week and although lots of nice things happen to me on a regular basis it is unusual for them to occur in the context of mum’s dementia so I thought I’d share.
Mum and dad came round for a cup of tea and I ended up doing a spontaneous manicure and pedicure. This was in part because I felt it would be a pleasant experience for mum and in part out of necessity – her toenails in particular were starting to look like a Quentin Blake illustration. As explained in previous posts, prior to the dementia mum’s nails were included in the “perfectly groomed” package – toes and fingers kept in a perpetual state of laquered glory. Post-diagnosis nail care is another thing to have fallen by the wayside and we’ve tried to mitigate this with semi-regular attendance at a nail bar. However, the nails this week were looking ghastly and they were the first thing I spotted as mum walked through the door in her seasonly-inappropriate open-toed sandals. Not only were the toes blue with cold, there was a half centimetre of nail growth before the pre-holiday varnish began. It wasn’t a good look.
I have done mum’s nails before but this time I thought I’d really go to town; removing what was left of the chipped holiday varnish, cutting and filing and reapplying a quick coat of a colour of choice. The practical issues were multiple but none insurmountable. Initially just finding a comfortable position for mum in the chair and getting her to lift her feet up onto my lap was the biggest challenge. It is in equal parts distressing and fascinating to witness what happens when the ‘normal’ messages from body to brain that tell you where your limbs are positioned, start to fail. This basic aspect of body awareness (proprioception), is critical to our movement and sense of position in space and I have noticed the increasing difficulties mum has in directing parts of her body to do things in the way she wants to. Part of it is working out which bit of her she wants to move where and verbal instructions from others do not help – at all. To begin with she sat down in a wooden kitchen chair at an angle of ninety degrees to me. It was obvious that she was not going to be able to extend her leg straight and get her foot where it needed to be. A substantial amount of hauling and heaving and scraping of chairs over the floor, sitting and standing and sitting again ensued but eventually she was, if not entirely comfortable, at least orientated in such a way as to not result in bilateral knee dislocation, so I began. I clipped her toenails entirely focussed on my task, smugly comforted to know that I was ‘doing a good thing’ for mum. I did however, forgot to actually look at her face and ensure that she was enjoying the whole experience. When I did eventually look up I was somewhat perturbed to note that she was grimacing in a manner more consistent with dental surgery than the pampering spa experience I had been sure I was creating. She was wincing and flinching every time I came near her with the clippers and even the gentlest of filing with an emery board provoked pursed lips and little snorts of discomfort. I asked repeatedly if she was OK and she nodded gamely. Still she continued to regard me warily as I doggedly pursued my task, all the time thinking “Sodding websites, telling me about the benefits of tactile stimulation in Alzheimer’s – nobody’s bloody enjoying this”. Things improved with the painting – although stopping her smudging the final masterpiece was a challenge – and then we had exactly the same scenario with the fingernails which I tried to do as gently as is humanly possible. We made a small fanfare about the glorious end result (which was largely ignored in the face of a World Cup rugby match on the telly) and I thought little more of it until mum and dad came to leave for home an hour or so later.
It is rare these days that mum remembers to observe the usual social niceties involved in saying goodbye. She may consent to be hugged or kissed on the cheek but would rarely initiate either action. She will sometimes make a gesture towards the children that implies leave-taking (a sort of half-wave half-lunge) but usually she simply follows dad out of the house and lets him take care of the “Great to see you / thanks for the tea / enjoy the rest of your weekend….etc”. On this occasion, the rugby had finished, unbeknownst to me and dad had clearly decided that the best way to ensure that he was home in time to see the next match was to exit immediately. I was upstairs, getting my daughter in the bath and mum came to find me. She loitered awkwardly in the doorway for a moment, then smiled and looked at her nails and then gave me a hug and said thank you. Well – you could have knocked me down with a feather.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t overwhelming praise for my manicurist skills and neither was it the most exuberant expression of gratitude I’ve ever received. However, to have an appreciative recognition for the time I’d spent and to feel that she was pleased with the end result was wonderful. I’m not expecting a Blue Peter badge and I realise painting someone’s nails is not groundbreaking treatment. Neither is it anything over and above what a normal daughter should do for her mother (or vice-versa – I remember mum painting my toenails when I was too pregnant to reach my feet any more). It was just a nice moment. That’s all.