the girl who likes hats

My mum:

She has Alzeihmers. It wasn’t a shock to find out when it was eventually diagnosed as my grandmother had it as well. My gran moved in to live with our family shortly after her husband died in the 70’s. I remember as a small boy thinking she was quite mad and I am sure that I must have treated her very badly. Something I am now aware of and quite ashamed. She was eventually put in a geriatric wing of the old Gartnavel Hospital in Glasgow. I only visited her there once as it was so distressing. After the first visit I refused to go in again and never saw her for, I guess, a few years before her death.

For my mother the threat of her having this disease has always been present. There may be some hereditary links. I guess the chances are I may be afflicted too although thankfully research currently says this is not definite. In some ways the burden of this knowledge has not helped her. She was and still is a clever woman. She was a teacher but her intellect is far greater than what you’d expect on meeting her and it is combined with a wide knowledge. This allows her to give the impression to folk that she is actually not at all unwell mentally. If you are in her presence for 5 minutes or so you’d be hard pressed to think there was anything wrong at all. She doesn’t ask questions but she just responds reasonably and with good humour to any you throw her way. She knows she doesn’t remember stuff and she knows the things that will give her illness away so all answers given to probing questions are as vague as possible. She’d drive Jeremy Paxman bonkers in an interview.

During her frequent visits to hospital this tactic used to be a real problem. She’d be visited by a Dr or clinician on a ward visit when we were not there to be her advocate and she’d answer the questions they posed soundly. Of course, she was answering what they wanted to hear, or rather what she thought they wanted to hear. She could have been too ill to eat for days but if a doctor asked her how her appetite was the answer would be, “fine, I’ll eat anything”. On several visits to hospitals in Scotland and England the doctors and nurses, even though they have notes saying she has been diagnosed with Alzeihmers, would not believe it and would continue to ask her questions and believe her answers. For a carer of someone with this condition it’s immensely frustrating to see the inadequacy of care procedures in UK hospitals. One of the aforementioned hospitals recently was praised for its treatment of the elderly! (how does a 10hr wait in A+E and an appraisal unit sound for adequate care) or arriving at visiting time to find your mother in a bed soaked with urine.

For the last 11 months my mum has lived with us in our home. We knew she had bad memory problems for several years before she was actually formally diagnosed in Scotland. About 20 months ago we managed to persuade the doctors to ask her to stop driving. That in itself was a struggle, even though her memory was so bad she would have trouble working out what button to press on her key ring to disable the engine immobilisor on her car. She even called the AA out about that. Once she stopped driving life become hard for her and my dad. At the same time he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. In the 4 or 5 years prior to this he’d also lost his sight through macular degeneration and they ended up working as a team. One, the brains and ears of the outfit and the other the eyes. My mothers worsening condition frustrated him a lot though. She’d ask the same thing over and over, or deny doing something that she had just done 10 minutes earlier. At times it got too much for him and he’d shout at her and she’d get upset and cry, then he’d get upset. During their 59yrs of marriage they hardly ever had arguments. Nearer the end of his life he became much more calm and philosophical about it. My wife moved to live with them in Glasgow for 9 months before they decided to sell up and move in with us. My dad wanted my mum to get used to living here before he passed away. Unfortunately it all didn’t quite work out that way and he died two days after they moved last December. The good news is that she can’t remember the circumstances surrounding his death, just that he isn’t with us anymore. She doesn’t realise she lives with us and often thinks she is just on holiday visiting.

Her condition now is that most of her memories seem to be intact it’s just that she can only access some at certain times and she has no control over this. So one day she may not be aware she has three sons but the next she will and will know where we all live and what we all do for a living. Some memories are stronger though, particularily older ones. She does appear at times to be an 80yr old that thinks she’s living her teenage or pre-teen life. She wont remember our family home in Glasgow but she will remember the layout of the tenement flat she had her very early childhood in up in Townhead in Glasgow. During 5th November celebrations she was wondering how her mother was coping with the noise of the fireworks up in Drumchapel. Yet the next day if you asked her she’d know her mum died 30yrs ago.

She loves quiz shows. I think because she doesn’t need to remember any plot. It’s just simple quiz questions, University Challenge being one of her favourites. You’d think an 83 yr old with dementia would have no chance answering any questions on that programme but you’d be wrong. Almost without exception she’ll shout out the answer to one of the questions and it’ll usually be something that I or my wife have no idea about. Of course we know though that this wont continue and it’s only going to get worse.

So that’s a lot I’ve written about my mum and the disease she has and this is supposed to be about my photography. I just wanted to let you, the reader, get an understanding of what she is like and what her life is like before I present you with what I’ve been doing.

A couple of years ago when we were helping my mum and dad clear out their flat we came across piles of hats. Some were in bags, some were in bag cases. They were my mums. It turns out she likes hats. So much so that she kept all hers. Seeing them again made her quite animated and I decided that I’d like to do a series of portraits of her in her hats. My dad’s illness and life got in the way and it never happened. Last Sunday though I decided to change all that and do the portraits while mum could still get enjoyment from it. So I set up a mini studio in my dining room, got her to put on a nice blouse and cardigan and we set off on our joint project together, These are the first test shots

the girl who likes hats

the girl who likes hats

the girl who likes hats

the girl who likes hats

the girl who likes hats

the girl who likes hats

the girl who likes hats

15 Responses to “the girl who likes hats”

  1. Stephen says:

    Such a beautiful, well written piece. I was almost disappointed that you did move on to the photography; the images are outstanding!

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Gorgeous! I particularly love your mum’s cheeky expression in the red hat. :-)

  3. jen says:

    I love that you’re doing the hats portraits. I’ll bet your mum loves wearing them again too. They’re beautiful hats.

  4. Tania says:

    She is a beautiful girl and all the pictures are great, but the last one is just wonderful.

  5. Very well written and moving piece accompanied by some lovely portraits. The shots are just full of character. Enjoy her while she is still with you – you’ll always only have one mother and she is special.

  6. Jim says:

    Beautiful moving piece Gordon

  7. Venomator says:

    What a very moving and well lit life story Gordon!

    All I can say is, your Mum is very lucky to have a son like you… :)

    Best wishes matey,


  8. Julianne says:

    Lovely photos and a touching tribute to your mother. I know exactly what you’re going through because I’ve had to cope for the last 15 years with my mum being similarly afflicted. She developed it decades younger than your mother and is barely with us now. Enjoy your mum while you can, take those photos and remember those wonderful smiles. I don’t want to sound excessively morbid here but try your best to keep the happy memories fresh in your mind.

  9. Mark says:

    Just fabulous! I think I’ve come back 10 times to look and show others! Have you yet realised how special and fantastic these portraits are? :)

  10. […] of this series, but so far the test shots are very touching. Read the full story on Gordon’s blog. Here’s a little […]

  11. David O'Shea says:

    This is very heart warming stuff Gordon. Your words and images have captured her essence in a way that is only a pleasure to behold. By placing emphasis on her hats helps bring to bring the viewer back to your mothers past and may indeed help your mother remember as time goes on.

  12. Miko says:

    Beautiful post, photos, and mum, Gordon. Thank you for sharing this; it’s brave and wonderful of you.

  13. […] have been asked in comments section on original post about “the girl who likes hats“, how I took and post processed the images. So this is a very short piece about […]

  14. Richard Siemens says:

    I saw you on the CreativeLive announcement for the iPhone workshop. I’ve been a full time photographer for many years, and I’m having a blast taking photos and videos with my iPhone. (Nothing as good as this). Then I read your piece on your mom. My mother has been going through the same thing for some time now. I have experienced everything you’ve described. I was especially touched by the the paragraphs, which are summed up by the line she was answering what they wanted to hear”. My mother does exactly the same thing. Thanks for the inspiration and all the best to you and your mother.


  15. Tim says:

    Great photos Gordon.

    I’m on the receiving end of family help and have been since 27 now 45. So many people seem to prefer to leave relatives in assistive living or care homes rather than follow the example set by those who come from the Indian sub-continent.

    I’m sure your mother is happier with you – I’m certainly happier with my family, we all live in the same part of the world as my parents and both my brothers and live next door the brother closer in age and outlook in a “granny flat”. Independent living but help on hand.

    The story shows you care, and I just love the photos. The best project so far.

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