Russell Martin, who lives with dementia, jokes that he’s learned a trick or two from Mother and Son‘s eccentric matriarch Maggie.

“I’m good at [annoying my family] myself,” he laughs, “but she comes up with some real rippers”.

Martin, 66, was diagnosed with dementia about four years ago. He has a rare form called posterior cortical atrophy, which can affect a person’s vision. 

Russell Martin says he sees “so much” of himself in the character Maggie.(Supplied: Dementia Australia)

“I’m now legally blind, and I’m losing my memory,” he says.

Martin finds the TV show’s portrayal of dementia “realistic and not at all offensive”.

“I see so much of me in the mother, frustratingly.”

Martin was one of several people living with dementia who were consulted by the producers of Mother and Son while the series was in development.

The ABC comedy is about the fraught relationship between the recently widowed Maggie (Denise Scott) and her middle-aged son Arthur (Matt Okine).

Maggie is becoming increasingly forgetful and Arthur moves back into the family home after she accidentally sets fire to the kitchen.

It reimagines the original Mother and Son TV series that ran on the ABC from 1983 to 1993.

Starring Ruth Cracknell and Garry McDonald, the original series didn’t ever mention dementia by name.

But the new series does, with Maggie undergoing a dementia assessment in one episode.

Dementia ‘not the same for everyone’

Maree McCabe says a show like Mother and Son helps raise awareness of dementia.(Supplied: Dementia Australia)

Chief executive of Dementia Australia Maree McCabe says the experience of dementia is different for each person living with the condition.

“One of the things that our advocates always say, and I know from my own experience with my father, is that when you’ve met one person living with dementia, you’ve met one person with dementia, because it’s not the same for everyone,” McCabe says.

“On the show, there will be moments that everyone can relate to, and there’ll be others that people won’t relate to in their experience of dementia, or caring for a loved one with dementia.”

That was the case for Claire Powell, who was also consulted by the producers of Mother and Son.

Powell, who cares for a family member with dementia, says while the portrayal of dementia in the series “didn’t ring true” to her experience, she feels that humour is an important coping mechanism.

Okine says everybody’s experience with dementia “is so different”.(ABC)

“I think humour is a really good vehicle for dementia,” she says.

“You have to laugh — and we laugh a lot — that’s the way I think you get through a lot of things.”

Powell says the show also addresses many of the tough decisions faced by people living with dementia, and those who care for them.

“[Things like] giving up your own home, going into either supportive care or residential care — it’s absolutely life-changing for a person, and it’s very upsetting,” she says.

Okine – who is also the creator and co-writer of the series – says he was very aware that “no-one’s journey is the same” with dementia, and that provided a challenge when developing the show.

“Everybody’s experience is so different,” he says.

“We really had to do a lot of thinking about where we wanted to find Maggie on her journey for the start of this series.”

Why the original didn’t mention dementia

Matt Okine says conversations about dementia are “much more prevalent now than it was back in the ’80s”.(ABC)

When Okine pitched the idea of a new Mother and Son to the creator of the original series, Geoffrey Atherden, it was how the show would tackle dementia that got Atherden over the line.

“In the original one-page document that I sent him, Maggie is starting to become aware that something might not be right,” Okine says.

“And it was that self-awareness that Geoffrey has said differentiated my version from his.

“I think the reason why that is possible is because the conversation around dementia is much more prevalent now than it was back in the ’80s, when the original came out.”

Atherden agrees. He says the current discourse surrounding dementia has given Okine “the ground that I felt I didn’t have back then, to go further than I went”.

Geoffrey Atherden on the set of the new Mother and Son with Denise Scott.(ABC)

Not mentioning dementia in the original series was a deliberate decision, Atherden says.

“We did it because this is often the position for a lot of families who don’t know what’s going on, and often who don’t want to know what’s going on,” he says.

“They don’t want it defined as dementia.

“They’d prefer to think of that as forgetfulness, even though they know that it’s more than that.”

Atherden also didn’t want to make the original Mother and Son about “a condition”.

“It’s about a relationship,” he says.

Writers laugh with, not at, Maggie

Maggie (Denise Scott) refers to dementia as “the D-word”.(ABC)

Atherden says his original series has been “both criticised and praised” by dementia support organisations.

“Some said, ‘You’re using this as a way to laugh at someone,’ and I actually didn’t think they were right,” he says.

“I don’t think we ever laughed at Maggie and we certainly never felt sorry for her.

“She was always cunning and defeated the people around her.”

Okine also says the writers of the new series had a rule that Maggie should never be laughed at.

“You can only laugh with her,” Okine says.

“That was something that we set out from the start to do and I think we’ve achieved that.”

Garry McDonald and Ruth Cracknell in the original Mother and Son.(ABC Archives)

People still thank Atherden for creating a show that has helped start discussions about dementia.

“It allows conversation to take place in a way that wouldn’t happen with a documentary,” he says.

“Because of the humour in the program, it meant a lot of people watched it start to finish, instead of tuned out, thinking, ‘No, no, this is an unpleasant subject, and I don’t have anything to do with it’.”

Moments of frustration ‘done so well’

The writers of the new Mother and Son had a rule about never laughing at Maggie.(ABC)

Dementia Australia’s McCabe says a show like Mother and Son helps raise much-needed awareness.

“The thing that I really like is the times where [Maggie] has absolute times of complete lucidity,” she says.

“That is what it’s like for people living with dementia. It fluctuates. It’s never the same.”

McCabe has also been impressed by the way the show balances humour with the moments of sheer frustration felt by the two lead characters.

“There are scenes in the show where it doesn’t matter what Arthur does, he just can’t get it right. It’s often the experience that people have,” she says.

“Also, for the person living with dementia, they can’t get it right either, and then they express their frustration.

“I just think they’ve done this so well.”

Contact the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.

Watch Mother and Son on ABC TV on Wednesday at 8:30pm. All episodes are available to stream on ABC iview.

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