Post: Dementia and the scent of coriander

Dementia and the scent of coriander

A few years ago our mother started to forget some words. My sister, who called her almost every day, noticed that she forgot the word for “coriander” which, as a great cook, she used to know very well. It annoyed me that she used the American “cilantro” which she picked up from the time we lived in LA. My father was American-Iranian and my mother is British but she would always shock Iranian people when she, a diminutive blue-eyed Brit, started speaking flawless Farsi with no accent at all. In Persian cooking, coriander is the bedrock of many dishes, and my mother’s Persian dishes were second to none. I have tried to cook one of my favourites, Ghormeh Sabzi, many times but it can never compare to my mother’s. The first step in cooking the dish is to chop the herbs: coriander, parsley, leeks and dill. This intoxicating smell would fill her kitchen. Ghormeh Sabzi is to me what madeleines were to Proust, a trigger for happy memories of childhood which she and I shared. If the word was lost then how long would it be until the memory of the dish, and her past and ultimately my name would slip beyond her grasp?

Ghormeh sabzi (but not as good as my mother’s)

As her condition deteriorated my sister and I realised that we would need to take over her medical and financial affairs. At first, this was just making sure that bills were paid on time and that she remembered to take her medication. Although the process is legal and rather clinical, the emotional impact can be difficult. Handing over control is never easy even if it’s in your best interests. King Lear had a bad time of it, and so have some members of the EU. Although we were expecting drama our mother was very sanguine and rational. I was the banker so she gave me control of her financial affairs called “Lasting Power of Attorney for Financial Decisions”, and my sister and I share “LPA for health and care decisions”. The Age UK website has useful information on what those terms mean.

The process of getting LPA was expensive but painless. We chose to use a solicitor, Lara, to guide us through the process, but you can do it yourself. The cost for the solicitor’s help was a little over a thousand pounds, which surprised me. But as a yardstick co-op legal services charge £270 for each LPA. On top of that, you pay the actual application fee with the Office of the Public Guardian which is £110 per person per LPA. We had three (financial and health for me, health for my sister) so this came to £330. If the donor (i.e. our mother in our case) has an income below £12,000 or receives certain benefits the application fee can be reduced or waived altogether according to the Office of the Public Guardian. The solicitor has to ensure that the person granting LPA (a) has the mental capacity to do so and (b) has not been put under any pressure. This meant leaving the room while Lara and our mother talked to one another. Lara did a great job and made the process painless. She struck just the right balance between being professional but sympathetic which is helpful when you are taking steps on a path that nobody wants to travel.

Lara, from Russell & Co in Malvern, was very helpful

While the LPA was easy and expensive, the process of getting mother’s bank to give me access to her bank account was free but time-consuming. I don’t have a bank account with the same bank, so they required lots of identification documents and visits to a branch close to where I worked. I haven’t been in a bank branch for years and this reminded me why. It took weeks for the bank to process the application, but eventually we set up phone banking and I could check our mother’s balances and set up payments as if it were my own account. Setting up internet banking proved more of a logistical challenge because, despite being with the bank for over forty years, they insisted on her providing new identification documents. This involved yet more branch visits and, while they were helpful, I really didn’t want to discuss my mother’s dementia with an ever-widening circle of strangers. And here Lara came to the rescue as we needed a notarized copy of my financial LPA which we had to deliver to her branch in Malvern, and Lara produced this for us very quickly.

After the LPA came the time when, after a stroke, we realised that mother was no longer financially competent. At this stage, the financial LPA has to write a letter to the bank formally stating that this is the case. From now on she will not deal with her own financial affairs at all.

For others facing the same situation I’d say the following:

  • Be prepared for the costs of getting Lasting Power of Attorney.
  • Consider whether you need a solicitor: if you do it yourself you will only pay the registration costs (see MoneySavingExpert’s useful article about it here).
  • Do the LPA as soon as possible after the diagnosis of dementia, painful though this may be. It’s easy to put it off, but ultimately this will make things easier and you have to do this before the donor loses mental capacity.
  • Face it as a family. My sister and I have laughed and cried through the whole journey together, and it’s made me appreciate just how amazingly selfless she is. Though we would not choose this ending it has brought us closer together.

It has been very difficult seeing someone I love unravel. Losing a parent is a loss of shared memories. When a parent dies the loss is sudden, with dementia it’s drawn out over years. But every time I smell coriander it evokes memories of being four years old, in a kitchen in Tehran next to my mother, excited that we were having Ghormeh Sabzi for supper. I’ll remember for both of us.

Mother enjoying her fries in McDonald’s in Malvern.