Thursday, July 29, 2004

My grandmother's 88th birthday. Last night was the birthday of my only remaining grandparent. She has pretty bad dementia and, given I'm snowed under with academic work, a cynical voice in my head told me she wouldn't even know who I am so there was very little point in going. Except that it meant a lot to my dad that I went.

For a while now the rhetoric has been "this might be her last birthday" or "this might be her last Christmas", and so the stakes are higher for participating in cringeworthy family occasions. Like last Christmas, when my uncle cried. He was pissed, but it was still really awkward. And despite breaking her hip this year and blithely informing my dad that "I think I'd like to take up tennis again," Nan just keeps going and going like the Energiser bunny, ensuring a plentiful supply of such occasions for the foreseeable future.

So in a rare show of family solidarity, we all trooped out to the nursing home for tea and cake. Nan was holding court in the rec room in her wheelchair, wearing a plastic tiara remarkably similar to the one I wear in the publicity shots for my Fringe show. It was both ludicrous and strangely fitting.

She had no idea who any of us were, but seemed very pleased that we were all having tea and cake with her. It's a paradox of Nan's dementia that she no longer gives a shit about social niceties surrounding food and drink, and yet her etiquette is so ingrained that it'll probably be the last thing to go: you'll ask how she is and she'll say "Oh, very well thankyou. How are you?"

There are lots of considerations to make when giving presents to demented old ladies. No books; no jokes; everything has to be practical and offer visceral pleasure. Like, my mother found a card in a drawer that I really wanted to give Nan, but mum said she would't get it. It said, "Familiarity breeds contempt... and children." This year my dad's sister and her family gave Nan a jumper, and our family gave her a mohair knee rug.

I was quite enthralled by the extended unwrapping ceremony. Nan was quite taken with the jumper, pronouncing it "my favourite shade of blue." As for the rug, she said, "What a lovely scarf!" to uproarious laughter from the assembled family members. (Tragically, my mother likes to wear large pieces of mohair as 'wraps'. I think she sees herself as a glamorous bohemian.)

But the real hit of the night was the card from my aunt, uncle and cousins. Nan read it out loud (the tragedy is that she doesn't need reading glasses.) "Dear Mollie," she read, "Wishing you a very happy 88th birthday - oh!" aghast at how old she was. After reading the whole thing through once, she started again, and was no less shocked the second time when she got to the "88th" part, but this time joked, "I'm getting ahead of you all." There were third and fourth readings. My mother said, "I think there's a year's worth of reading material there." (This was a joke about an old Women's Weekly that someone had given Nan, that she referred to as "a new magazine" every time someone visited her.)

There's a real 'old' theme in my life at the moment. Last Saturday Penny's sister Lucy, who's a med student, was regaling us with the grim clinics she's conducting on her geriatrics round, called "Falls", "Memory", and "Continence". "Falls" involves pushing old people and seeing if they fall over. We were in stitches: I pointed out the irony that we might fall over laughing and piss ourselves. Was it a way for us to paper over the horrible possibility that the same thing awaits us in fifty years?

And only the day before yesterday I had been writing an article at work with the headline "Old is the new young", which was all about how baby boomers are refusing to think of themselves as getting old, let alone the financial and health realities that entails. Apparently French baby boomers are in such denial that gerontologists have given up on changing their attitudes and are working with kids.

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