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Letter captures zest for life that dementia has stolen

Richenda Rudman wrote a letter to help aged care staff understand the stylish artist her mother Denise (pictured) once was.

Richenda Rudman got a shock when she visited her mother Denise in a residential aged care facility recently. Dementia had left her mother a dishevelled shadow of the stylish and creative person she had been.

“I always thought when she died it would be driving a sports car, or on top of the roof fighting a bushfire,” Richenda says.

“To see her dwindling away is quite awful.”

Having worked as a nurse herself, Richenda felt the need to tell staff about the talented woman Denise was before her deterioration. She says staff are often so busy managing their workload that they don’t have the chance to stop and see the patient as having been a great researcher, a fantastic cook or a super mother.

Richenda Rudman with her mother, Denise.

When Richenda worked in aged care, she learned a resident had been a brilliant cancer researcher. One day after a shift she asked him about his work and he burst into tears.

“He was a really brilliant man and he wanted people to know about what he had done. Talking about it made a huge difference to him, and to me as well. It softened the way I treated him and I think that was a great thing.”

“I put myself in mum’s shoes and I think she would want to tell people she wasn’t just this fragile dry twig in a chair, covered in a stained lavender blanket; that she had lived a good life and she was good at so many things.”

She wrote a letter on her mother’s behalf; a cathartic process which she hopes will also remind busy staff of her mother’s humanity.

“When we know someone has had a life other than in a bed and requiring feeding or toileting we identify with them because we too have climbed onto a roof to clean a gutter or had a lover. It is the bridge between us and the patients. We are together more fully human and it’s only out of that recognising that shared humanity that we can do it better.”

Richenda has kindly allowed Palliative Matters to reproduce her letter. Below is an edited version.

Dear staff,

I know you’re in a hurry, but I want you to know I was once something other than a client on your list; one for whom you professionally and kindly complete a collection of basic living tasks.

Do you know, I once looked after a farm by myself. I chopped wood, I baked bread, I had a pet kangaroo, I climbed ladders and rid the gutters of autumn leaves. I grew vegetables and the day a water pipe from the dam burst I walked up the hill and joined two bits of metal together. It worked again and the water flowed. This was the happiest time in my life. I was in nature and it was in me. Everything – magpies calling, the way the light changed over the course of the day and the flowers I gathered for the blue jug on the table  – became the harmony in which I lived.

I painted there, at the farm. I was an artist. The soil and the sun came through my brush onto the canvas. It was an expression of the joyfulness I felt. It was living.

Denise as a young woman.

Night and good soups made by my garden and my hands, sleeping under feather quilts with a hot water bottle, and the stars naked and glorious in a black, black sky. I loved living simply and I simply loved living.

Some of the paintings you see in my room are ones I did. I won awards for my work. Mostly, I loved painting the Australian bush and things from it: birds’ nests, wildflowers and rocks. I’d find bowls and jugs in junk shops and create a still life with the objects I’d found.

I taught other people to paint and draw. I was good at it. I did portraits of people. I’d find their character and it would appear in their eyes or the way they held their hands or heads.

I liked to play the piano; I played in musicals, for guests and for myself. Feeling the mood of a piece of music and relaying it to an audience was like painting – it was being alive.

I liked entertaining. I made everything from scratch and my little table would groan with the weight of dolmades, hummus, lush olives and cheese and bread. I’d whip up scones and cakes, make pasta and bread, kneading and pummelling and shaping the dough was an extension of my hands – once upon a time they were strong and capable.

Art and beauty are in everything, the way you dress or wrap a present, arranging a fruit bowl or food on a plate. You don’t need to buy a painting or even paint one yourself – use your hands and place things in a way that is appealing to the eye. I used to say to people, “Go and buy a bunch of flowers and stick them in a vase – it’ll make you feel better”. It worked for me.

I had two husbands and I had lovers. To live fully is to love and to lose. I could tell you a thing about broken hearts.

I liked clothes and they liked me: it was the feel and the touch of good quality fabrics I liked the most. I was lucky to have good bones and I watched my weight. I liked unusual clothes and jewellery – to put things together creatively and I made my own clothes. I’d never leave the house with a dirty mark on my shirt or without applying an earth-toned lipstick. I was striking and proud of my appearance.

I could dance. I could sing. I was an excellent mimic.

I was a mother and my children and grandchildren adorn my walls.

Now, I sit or lie in a chair that protects me from the creature I have become – one who can’t walk or stand, who breaks like kindling if she falls.

I’m covered today in a lavender coloured blanket. Lavender was never one of my colours.



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