Jann Arden opens up about caring for her mother with Alzheimer's
Canadian singer-songwriter Jann Arden says her new album is about learning from mistakes and embracing hardships, as she cares for her 82-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s disease.
Arden told CTV News Chief Anchor Lisa LaFlamme in a feature interview on Wednesday that when she started writing These Are The Days, she was dealing with a lot of upheaval.
“I had ended a 10-year relationship. My mom and my dad were both quite ill,” she says. “I wasn’t in great health. I was heavier than I’d been in a long time and drinking too much ... It was just such a culmination.”
While writing the new music, Arden was also writing a book. “Feeding My Mother” tracks her experience coming to terms with her mother Joan Richards’ illness while cooking for her nightly.
Arden says her mother was in her early 70s when she started showing signs of dementia, but Arden originally brushed it off as “garden-variety” memory loss. Eventually it became clear that Richards’ problems were not the normal signs of aging.
“She’d pick up the phone and say, ‘What do you do with this?’” Arden recalls. “That’s not forgetting where your keys are.”
The diagnosis was difficult to accept. “I thought my mom would be on cruises now with her girlfriends and having a beer, and all those things were stolen from her,” Arden explains.
“But having said that, my mom tells me every time I see her, ‘I love my life, I have a good life,’” she says. “I’m on the lucky side of Alzheimer’s because my mom is quite cheery.”
The relationship hasn’t been without strain, of course.
“I did go through a couple years of someone that I didn’t know very well telling me I’m the worst person in the world and I’m going to go to hell,” she says.
Two years ago, Richards’ disease progressed to the point that she needed full-time caregivers, despite Arden owning a home right across the road from her in rural Alberta.
Just days ago, Arden was to move Richards into a specialized care facility that can meet her complex medical needs.
“This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “You’re basically parenting your parent.”
“But what an honour,” she adds. “My mom and dad were not perfect people but I would never have been able to do what I’m doing without them.”
Arden’s advice for caregivers
Arden says her biggest mistake when caring for her mother was acting as “the memory police.”
She stopped doing that after “an epiphany,” she says. Richards was complaining about imaginary people at the house across the road -- Arden’s house. Rather than explaining the situation, she told her mom, “You’d think they could pick up a broom and do that deck.”
“Well yeah!” Richards responded, according to Arden.
“And we moved on,” she says. “If someone would have told me it’s that easy: just go where they go ... be in the moment.”
The meaning behind the title track
Arden has written songs over the years about her mother, but she says the title track on “These Are The Days” isn’t about Richards.
Rather, it was written to herself. “That song is very much about ‘There’s life in you yet,’” she says. “Although you’re kind of lost in the mire, you can still find your way through it and that’s what ‘These Are the Days’ is about.”
“It’s also about kicking butt, not taking any prisoners, getting out there and doing your best and not being afraid to screw up,” Arden adds.
“If you’re going to get out there and not be prepared to fail, you’re missing out in life,” she says. “Failure is half the fun.”
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia that affects 564,000 Canadians, with the number is expected to reach 937,000 in 15 years, according to Alzheimer’s Society Canada.
It’s not yet known what causes Alzheimer’s. Risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol, low levels of formal education, depression, head injuries, family history and being female.
Alzheimer’s Society Canada says that warning signs include the following:
- Memory loss affecting day-to-day abilities–forgetting things often or struggling to retain new information.
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks–forgetting how to do something you’ve been doing your whole life, such as preparing a meal or getting dressed.
- Problems with language–forgetting words or substituting words that don’t fit the context.
- Disorientation in time and space–not knowing what day of the week it is or getting lost in a familiar place.
- Impaired judgment–not recognizing a medical problem that needs attention or wearing light clothing on a cold day.
- Problems with abstract thinking–not understanding what numbers signify on a calculator, for example, or how they’re used.
- Misplacing things–putting things in strange places, like an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.
- Changes in mood and behaviour–exhibiting severe mood swings from being easy-going to quick-tempered.
- Changes in personality–behaving out of character such as feeling paranoid or threatened.
- Loss of initiative–losing interest in friends, family and favourite activities.