It’s around 8am on a Sunday morning in February. I’m at home blogging and waiting for Steve Wright’s Love Songs to start on Radio 2 and thinking of mum. Up in her hilltop Oxfordshire village, she has got up, gone to the loo and is looking out of her kitchen window at the birds in her garden.
She might throw out some bird seed. Have I topped her seed bin up? She taps on the window if plagued by those starlings or a fat pigeon. What she really likes are the reed buntings with their clerical collars.
In front of her on the window sill is the tiny dish of pills that she will hopefully have transferred from the dosette box which I keep stocked correctly. She will have a cup of tea using water from the special urn I bought her when her muscles could no longer support tipping the kettle. She’ll take her pills slowly – yellow, white, halves, bicoloured lozenges, one by one. After a while she goes back to bed and won’t rise again for the day until 11.
Watching the birds is one of my mums “topics”. Most conversations include this topic. The conversation is almost always identical. How she got up early, saw the wren (or not), and the reed bunting (or not), or the strange group of small brown jobs who flew in once. And how she taps on the window to startle the pigeons and starlings. Later, if we have an argument, or if mum gets anxious, I can bring her back to a happy reverie by observing “Wrens are lovely birds, aren’t they?” or “Pigeons are so greedy.”
The inability to move on in a conversation (perseveration), to mentally engage with a new topic (lack of spontaneity) or the desire to return to a safe topic (seeking psychological comfort) are recognisable symptoms of cognitive impairment. But why is the bird- table and garden birds such a frequent safe topic? What is the meaning of these daily sightings and identifications?
The desire to nurture, to love and to care for living things is strong. My mum needs a lot of behind-the-scenes care. Here she is actively caring for others. She has recently had to face giving up her car ( but that’s for another blog) and has started to complain of loneliness. Identifying the birds is a welcoming of friends. It doesn’t matter if that bird in front of her is actually a reed bunting – or a coal tit – it’s a friend, it has come when called. Her moment-to-moment memory is sometimes under 60 secs so she notes her thoughts on post-its. These multiple post- its settle on every surface like those birds flitting around the table. Locked into the visual and aural routine of meeting and greeting friends, she can take the necessary pills like a bird pecking up seed, and return to bed in peace to face that other – perhaps more difficult day – later.