‘Alzheimers: A Love Story’ by Vivienne Ulman

2009, 212 p.

As I wrote in my posting on Hazel Hawke, I’ve been a bit reluctant to embark on a reading binge of books on Alzheimers, even though my mother suffers from the condition.  Perhaps it’s part of the denial that families have at the early stages of the disease- ours is no exception- and not wanting to look too far ahead for fear that it will cast a shadow over what is here right now.  But in recent months Mum’s had a fall, broken her pelvis, been hospitalized and her condition has deteriorated appallingly.  She’s been in transition care for some months and a couple of weeks ago moved into the high level nursing home that will be her home now.  This litany of decline,  for those of you who haven’t been down this road,  must seem like just a string of cliches.  But the fall-broken pelvis-transition care-nursing home downward trajectory obscures the pain of it all.   Like all families, particularly when one partner is still living in the family home, there’s guilt, sorrow, grief, anger, with family members pulling together and yet pulling  each other down as well.   I haven’t really wanted to read about other families doing this up until now, but perhaps because such a big step has been taken now with Mum moving into the nursing home, I’m now more open to read about how other families have coped with all this.

Vivienne Ulman is the daughter of Saul and Lucy Same who started Gloweave shirts, those rather quaint fashion items of the 1970s.  The Melbourne she describes is one that I’m not familiar with in many ways- south of the Yarra, Jewish, and obviously very very wealthy.   But in other ways, there’s much that is recognizable: Graham Kennedy’s advertisements for Glo-Weave (it used to have a hyphen) on IMT; the factories in inner northern Melbourne (far more my stomping ground), and the influence of Melbourne-based ALP politicians.  Her parents both emigrated to Melbourne separately with their families  prior to World War II and worked the business up from scratch.  They had a strong commitment to leftish politics and a lifelong association with the ALP although that surely must have been tested by the “structural adjustment” (what a weasel word!) changes imposed onto the clothing and textile industry.

This book has several strands that, just like the fabric that Glo-Weave created, are woven together into a whole.  There’s the day-to-day current reality of Lucy Same in her nursing home, increasingly difficult and incoherent with her husband Saul pouring into her all the love he can; there’s Vivienne’s upbringing in 1960s and 70s Melbourne in a bustling Jewish family, and there’s the Glo-Weave business history as economic changes, industrialisation, technology and marketing change the directions of the enterprise.   All three strands are interesting and well-told, with just the odd stilted phrase that belies the creative writing course origins of the book.

The structure is interspersed with Vivienne’s letters to her mother (another waft of the creative writing course?); letters of course that her mother will never read now.  But I now know, in a way that I didn’t a year ago, about that longing to be able to talk with the person with Alzheimers in the way that you used to, when you took such conversations for granted.  For myself, I often catch myself looking at the clock at about 8.10 in the morning.  When I was home with young children, Mum used to ring me at that time nearly every morning, not really with anything to say but just keeping contact.  I hadn’t thought about those phone calls in a long time, but now I would give anything to have one of them and to know that my busy, efficient, bustling little mum was on the end of the phone and talking to me.

I’m reading the book with a frisson of anxiety.  Saul spends ALL DAY at the nursing home- we don’t do that- should we?  Are we remiss or is he obsessive?  He pays for a carer to stay with Lucy all day in the nursing home-  is there something going on in nursing homes that we don’t know about that we should do the same thing too (if we could afford it) ?  The nursing homes, even though they are high care, are constantly shifting Lucy on because she’s too difficult-  what if my Mum becomes ‘difficult’ too?- will she be moved out of a place that so far I’m happy with?  My Mum so far is not physically aggressive- will she become that way in the future?

There’s so much guilt and anger here too, and this I can now appreciate. Vivienne herself lives in Tasmania as part of a tree-change lifestyle.  As the only daughter (and why is it that daughters feel that it falls on them?), she feels guilty, spends much time over in Melbourne, but doesn’t move back permanently. [Should she? thinks my inner judge and nitpicker. I’m sure that she wonders the same thing.]   She is angry at the disease, angry at the mother who is so angry at her, angry at her father whose absolute devotion makes Vivienne feel inadequate and yet wary of being drawn into his obsession as well.  All of this I know now.

This is a good book on many levels; or at least, it’s a good book for ME right now.

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2 responses to “‘Alzheimers: A Love Story’ by Vivienne Ulman

  1. This sounds good … would love to find time to read it.

  2. A hard road you are on. The only comfort is that Alzheimers is a progressive disease and sufferers become less aware. I tell myself how much my mother did for me when I was young, and so I must now do for her.

    I loved my Glo Weave body shirts even though I was skinny. I assume someone bought the company. Do you know who?

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