23 Apr 2018

Jann Arden: what my mother's Alzheimer's taught me

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:07 pm on 23 April 2018

Award-winning Canadian musician Jann Arden says caring for her mother Joan as her memory failed has given her an appreciation for each moment she could have learnt no other way.

Jann Adern and her mother

Jann Adern and her mother Photo: Facebook

Jann has turned her hugely successful blog posts about the experience of making meals with a mother who had become a stranger into the book Feeding My Mother: Comfort and Laughter in the Kitchen as My Mom Lives with Memory Loss.

Jann's father Derrel also suffered from memory loss, but a disease very different to Alzheimer's which affected his speech and mobility, Lewy body dementia.

Despite her own memory already failing, Jann's mum kept her own sickness a secret and was Derrel's primary caregiver until his death two years ago.

"My parents did a dance that was really something to behold," Jann says.

"I guess after 57 years of marriage they were kind of locked and loaded together. They hid their problems together."

In the last years Joan and Derrel lived together, the wayward TV remote became a huge issue, Jann says.

She lived nearby and would often "traipse over" to help them find it.

One day when the remote turned up in the dog food bag, Jann was enraged.

"I grabbed the remote control out of the dog food bag and I was about to launch into this 'I've been over there three times today…' My mum said 'Well, Jann, eventually we would have found it when we fed the dog'. And it just kind of stopped me in my tracks."

Joan developed the "earnestness of a five-year-old" and at the same time became unsentimental, Jann says.

She didn't cry when her husband died, but when the dog died three weeks later wept like it was the "end of days".

When Jann asked why, she said, "Well, I loved the dog."

"If you don't laugh at the absurdity of what is going on with memory loss, you really find yourself going down a very dark and lonely hallway."

But Jann wasn't always able to laugh.

One night when she felt herself sinking into depression she posted on Facebook about her frustration with her mum.

The next day her manager called to say the post had been viewed by a million people.

"I sat that night and read comments for three or four hours and I cried until I couldn't cry any more. All these people were experiencing similar things to me but much worse, as well. I instantly felt 'I'm not alone in this' and I just kept writing about it."

Jann Arden

Jann Arden Photo: Jann Arden / Facebook

Jann says her mother was never a great cook, but as the Alzheimer's developed, helping to prepare meals gave her purpose.

"I would have Mum peel potatoes or chop up some carrots. She could stand there and do that. She would ask me all the time if she was doing it right, but I realised that she just enjoyed helping me."

While it's very difficult for family and friends to adjust to the gradual reformation of a personality that is Alzheimer's disease, the person with the disease only realises for a very short time what's happening before they're living in a different state, Jann says.

She would reflect for weeks on things her mother said – such as 'You don't have to remember things to be happy' and 'Alzheimer's is good because you forget to be afraid'.

"She may not know what she did five seconds ago, but in the moment she always will say 'I enjoy my life'."

Jann is grateful that unlike many other people with Alzheimer's, her mother is yet to become angry or aggressive.

"How she sees the sun shining through the clouds, I don't know how. It's just who she is innately and it's still in there."

Jann says her mother has taught her not to worry about the future.

"I am so into the pure joy of just experiencing what's happening to me right now, and my mother has taught me that. I don't know if there is any other way on this planet that I would have learned that."

Joan is 82 this year.

Jann says she's been living in a medical centre for a month now, but her doctor says she's in very good physical health and could live another eight or nine years.

Joan is confident of this herself and has said "I'm gonna live a long, long time".

She has also asked to visit a sunny place, Jann says, and they'll do that together soon.

"I think I'm gonna plonk her on to a quick two-hour flight down to Palm Springs, which is in California. I'm gonna try and give her the best life I can give her … I'm doing what she would do for me."

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