Mary toys with a perfectly proportioned quarter of meat pie on her plate. “I can’t eat any more, would you like some pie?” she asks Campbell. “No thanks Mum,” he replies. She is determined not to waste the gourmet scrap and turns to her granddaughter seated next to Campbell. “What about you?”
“Oh, no thanks Nanna, I’m having trouble finishing my own,” Holly replies with a nervous giggle.
Mary fiddles with her cutlery and looks at her plate intently: “Would you like some? Go on,” she urges her youngest granddaughter.
“Oh, no thank you, I‘m still eating my lunch.” Lily says, whilst pulling apart a huge chicken and salad baguette, spreading it all over her plate and eating each component separately.
My mother-in-law turns to me and hesitates. The pause seems to go on indefinitely. I know it is not because she doesn’t want to offer me pie but because she cannot remember my name. “What about you?” she asks.
“No thanks Mary”, I say, “I’m too full.”
Mary looks about the table, “Yes, they’re big portions” she announces.
There is inordinate disappointment in her expression as though she is about to cry – not because there are no takers for the pie, surely. It is a simple gesture but as our lunch in a pleasant seaside cafe progresses, the pie issue seems to preoccupy her.
We continue with our lunch and make small talk about the unseasonal warmth of the day, the colour of the water and the pleasant way we are spending the afternoon.
Mary suddenly notices the pie portion remaining on her plate and turns to her son as though for the first time, “I’ve had enough, would you like some pie?” This is the fourth time she has asked him and he just shakes his head.
Unexpectedly annoyed, Mary indicates Lily’s disseminated chicken, “You’re not going to waste all that are you?”
Lily shifts uncomfortably in her seat, looks to me for guidance and finding none, asks instead: “Aren’t you going to eat your pie, Nanna?”
I change the subject. “Who would like some coffee or hot chocolate?”
Once again, Mary looks at me; this time there is confusion and slight panic in her eyes. She picks up her cutlery as if about to commence eating but the gesture is uncertain and her hands wobble visibly. She speaks abruptly in an overly loud voice, “What about you, would you like some pie?” Now the couple at the next table look up, unsure if she is addressing them.
“Oh, it looks lovely but I have too much on my plate,” I say quickly. My silent wish for the waitress to clear our plates is echoed in the awkward lull around the table. The rest look out the window and appear engrossed.
Mary is one of *332,000 Australians and an estimated 44 million people worldwide who suffer from Alzheimer’s and for whom ageing is not the tranquil and dignified overture they imagined.
Until twelve months ago, she was an active member of her community, organising and achieving much, quick-witted and knowledgeable on any current affairs topic. In her diligence to ensure they were promptly received, greeting cards from Mary were often harbingers of birthdays.
Once again, Mary turns to Campbell. This time her offer of pie is more like a command, “Campbell!” she says emphatically and smiles, pleased with herself for remembering his name, “Have some pie!”
*Statistics taken from Alzheimers Australia
NB Names have been changed