By Heather Cameron
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
n May 1, a seven-episode podcast titled Let’s Not Be Kidding will launch on CBC Listen and other podcast sites with CBC performer and former Taberite Gavin Crawford at the helm. In the podcast, Crawford will recount his experiences with his late mother, Donna Crawford, and her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
“I came up with the idea for it during the middle of the pandemic because partly I couldn’t go see her and I was starting to feel like I was forgetting what she was like before in a little bit of a way,” Crawford said. “That was frustrating for me because you get so focused on caring for the person kind of as they are now, that the idea of my mom kind of at her prime was kind of disappearing for me a little bit. And I thought I have to figure out a way to kind of fill back in this sort of paint by numbers painting that’s getting slowly de-coloured over the course of many years.”
Crawford says that when he thought about doing a podcast about his mother’s journey, it seemed like the right kind of medium to be able to be funny and a little bit sad, which was a little out of the wheelhouse for him. Although the experience of creating a podcast was a bit more revealing for him than he was generally used to, Crawford says he felt he needed to get it out of his head.
“Being sort of an oral storyteller, whether it’s in stand-up comedy or characters comedy, that’s sort of what I know how to do,” Crawford said. “It just seemed like the best approach, and we didn’t really know what it was gonna be. I just thought, well, ‘let’s give it a try.’ And then it kind of evolved into ‘Let’s Not Be Kidding.’ That was sort of one of my mom’s kind of main catchphrases. She always had a very kind of dry sense of humour. She always liked to sort of let you know she knew what was going on by just adding a quick, ‘Let’s not be kidding.’”
Crawford says that Let’s Not Be Kidding will be a mix of monologues and interviews where comedians and others talk about Alzheimer’s and episodically trace the path from finding out what’s going on or having an idea about the phase of denial.
“And we kind of just track the progress of the disease sort of through my kind of experiences with my mom,” Crawford said. “It’s sort of tracing that weird journey of very kind of long grief and just the notion of sort of losing things bit by bit. Anyone that’s had a loved one going through a very long-term illness, you just can’t be sad all the time because life goes on. I sort of liken it to waving goodbye to someone at a train station, but the train is only moving like one millimeter an hour. You can’t just stand there waving forever. You have to find a way to cope with that.”
The podcast, Crawford says, will feature one episode per week and will include portraits of his mom, comedic monologues, and communication with celebrities including Jann Arden, Scott Thompson, and Aurora Browne, about their experiences with their loved ones’ struggles with Alzheimer’s.
“It’s easier for us to tell these stories by just talking to each other and laughing about what we’re going through with each of our respected loved ones,” Crawford said. “Jan’s been very public about what she went through with her mom and dad, and she was a good source of comfort and information for me. We would be texting back and forth. And so, we sort of got together and talked a little bit about her experience and traded some stories and Scott Thompson, I know was going through a similar thing with his mother and dementia, so he came in and we talked a little bit about being little gay kids who really liked their moms and that kind of weird mom-son relationship that you have. Even though it’s stereotypical, it’s kind of true. Like they’re kind of your friend. And then Aurora I know from The Second City, and she was going through a certain thing with her dad and so, she came in and we talked about various other things. Everyone kind of crops up in different episodes depending on the subject that we’re talking about.”
Browne, Crawford says, will appear in an episode of the podcast called Hide The Keys that revolves around discussing when driving becomes untenable for a person struggling with Alzheimer’s/dementia. Crawford says that his mom was much like Browne’s in that she loved driving and being able to drive.
“In southern Alberta, you need to be able to drive and she loved to drive, it was always like her guaranteed sense of freedom,” said Crawford, who was born in Taber. “Like she could get in the car and go at any point in time. And so, when you hit that point where you have to take the keys away, it’s very – not only is it difficult for you, but it’s also incredibly difficult for them because they think, ‘Why are you doing this? You know, I should still be able to drive’ even though most of the time they’re driving into oncoming traffic.”
Crawford says that his mother began her descent into Alzheimer’s approximately eight to 10 years ago. The first time Crawford realized something was wrong was when he, his husband, Kyle, and his mother went Christmas shopping at the mall and before separating, they agreed to meet at a specific place at a specific time. When he and his husband returned from shopping, Crawford and his husband realized that his mother had not gone anywhere at all.
“My mom had sort of had cancer and beaten it like three times and then had a stem cell transplant, so, if she would be forgetful of things, we would think, ‘Oh, it’s chemo brain or you know, this or that,’” Crawford said. “And I think anyone that knows my mom knows she really was an excellent shopper or at least a browser. And so that kind of time in the mall when we realized that she hadn’t gone anywhere was so out of character that Kyle, my husband, realized more closely than I did. But that was, I think the moment where it really sunk in and you thought, ‘Okay, this is real. Something bad is definitely happening.’”
The incident in the mall, Crawford says, was what prompted his family to realize something was amiss with his mother. From there, Crawford stated, his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s unfolded with sprints and lags. Crawford states that there eventually came a point where his mother could no longer sit still, and she kept wanting to go to a home that simply didn’t exist because she didn’t recognize it.
“I had to really dip into my improv background and think of a lot of lies to be like, why don’t you just stay where you are for a while?” Crawford said. “That was one of the harder progressions when there was nowhere that she could be where she wasn’t ready to grab her coat and head on home.”
Crawford states that the actual diagnosis of Alzheimer’s came rather late for his mother because she kept passing the medical tests. His mother, Crawford said, had no idea who he or his father was, but was still able to pass the test that was used to diagnose Alzheimer’s and it was proving very frustrating to him and his family.
“I asked this Alzheimer’s specialist that I talked to on one of the episodes and I asked her because I think that tests are predominantly designed for men and they don’t split it up by men/women,” Crawford said. “And I asked her, ‘Do you think that women tend to pass the test more than they should compared to men?’ And she sort of thought ‘It’s possible’ because what they test, things like drawing or like quick short term memory, are kind of in my mom’s skillset because she was an artist and a teacher. And so, I think she probably was able to sort of pass the cognitive test a lot further along than maybe some other people would’ve been able to.”
Once his mother was finally diagnosed, however, Crawford made great strides to bring his parents out from Lethbridge to Toronto where he and his husband live, and they also visited Nova Scotia together. Although his father and sisters did most of the caregiving, Crawford says, he also did what he could for his mom. There came a time, though, where Crawford had to put his mother in the dementia unit of a Good Samaritans facility in Lethbridge.
“When it becomes untenable for them to be able to take care of themselves, you have to take them somewhere they have better supervision and they don’t want to stay there,” Crawford stated. “It’s a heartbreaker. And there’s no way not to feel like you’re dropping them off at like some Charlie in the Chocolate Factory boarding school with some mean principal waiting until you leave. Like, you feel like a cruel step-parent being like, ‘Get out of my sight.’ No matter how much you care about the person. It’s just a really hard thing for people to do.”
Crawford stated that his mother eventually passed away in September 2022 and both he and his family are personally worried about if they, too, will develop the disease, as it is genetic. His mother’s mother and her dad had Alzheimer’s, Crawford says, as did his mother’s grandfather.
“The dark joke around our family is ‘Which of us gets this prize?’ Crawford said. “And you know, everyone’s like, ‘Hmm, I’m a lot like Mom in this way; am I gonna be like her that way too?’ Everyone’s kind of steeling themselves for it. We’re just hoping they make some medical advancements in the next few years.”
Crawford admits he used to talk about his mother all the time, but after she began declining into dementia, he found it difficult to speak of her at all.
“People would just say like, ‘Oh, how’s your mom doing?’” Crawford said. “And I’d be like, you know, ‘Oh fine. You know, it is what it is.’ But I wouldn’t go into any details because I didn’t really wanna make anyone depressed or be like, ‘Oh my God, this like crazy thing happened,’ It makes people too sad.”
Crawford says that Let’s Not Be Kidding actually ended up becoming a reality because a CBC producer, Daemon Fairless, asked him if he had any podcast ideas. Crawford states he ended up submitting three different pitches for podcasts and one of them was a short story he wrote about a Christmas where his mom was spending time with him and his husband.
“She kept thinking that my husband Kyle had invented the Christmas tree,” Crawford said. “She kept looking at the Christmas tree and being like, ‘Whose idea was that to bring a tree in the house?’ That’s an amazing idea. And it was so funny because every five minutes she would be like, did Kyle think of that to bring that tree inside? And you wanna be like, ‘Mom, it’s a Christmas tree.’ But you know, she just was convinced, he just had such a great design skill that he must have thought of that. And she was like, ‘You should tell your sisters about this. I bet they would do that and this would look really good in their house.’ And ‘I’m like, yeah, I’ll let them know. Who knows, maybe we can make it worldwide.’”
Fairless, Crawford said, encouraged him to make a podcast series from that singular story. Crawford says he agreed to do it because he decided that keeping the experiences with his mother to himself was very isolating and that such experiences should be talked about.
Another reason Crawford decided to do Let’s Not Be Kidding, he says, is to help people feel comfortable talking about what they’re going through or to give people an opportunity to listen to someone having experiences similar to theirs.
“I play a lot of video games, so it’s kind of like when you’re playing a video game you can go online and they have all these walkthroughs that if you’re struggling at a certain part or you’re just like, ‘I can’t do this,’ you can look it up and there’ll be a hundred other people having conversation, being like, ‘is anyone else having trouble?’ Crawford said. “And I feel like that’s a little bit like what this is. It’s kind of a little bit of a walkthrough of what to expect. And so, if you have gone through it or are going through it or, you know, anticipate maybe having to go through it, it just gives you a little bit of a touchstone where you could be like, ‘Okay, yes, I am not alone.’”
Crawford encourages people who are friends with caregivers to let the caregivers joke and vent about their situations so they can feel some relief. When people feel like they can’t talk about their situations as caregivers, Crawford says, it becomes isolating and uncomfortable, as caregivers just want to be treated normally or be helped to feel like they can talk about their situation and receive sympathy.
“I feel like we hide our grief because we don’t wanna make other people feel sad for us or feel like they have to feel sad for us,” Crawford said. “And I think that’s one thing we’re not really taught in North America very well: how to deal with grief. Not just personal grief, but how to deal with other people’s grief. Don’t be afraid to seek out other people who are going through it.”
CBC’s Let’s Not Be Kidding launches on May 1, 2023, on many podcast sites including CBC Listen, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Castbox, and Radio Public with new episodes available weekly.