Dear Readers, I spent the early part of this week in Dorset, visiting my dad. As regular readers will know, he has vascular dementia, and is living in a nursing home in Dorchester. His face breaks into a huge smile when I walk into the lounge, although I am convinced that he doesn’t know exactly who I am. Still, when I give him the Polo mints and Dairy Milk chocolate that I’ve bought he gathers them up with glee. Sometimes, I think that we are like Russian dolls, with all our previous selves hidden inside us. When I look at his face, I can see the cheeky schoolboy that I never knew.
However, Dad is, in his head, a bit older than a schoolboy.
‘The Captain came in to see us yesterday’, he said, ‘and told us not to worry because we don’t have dress parades here’.
It seems that Dad is back on National Service.
‘Did he, Dad?’ I said.
‘Yes,’ Dad says, ‘And we went out for a dance yesterday and we were dancing until 3 o’clock in the morning!’
This actually has a kernel of truth – the residents have a form of music and movement that some of them enjoy. Dad normally sleeps through it, but seems to have embraced it with gusto this week.
Then he looks thoughtful.
‘This might sound wicked’, he says, ‘But I really miss your Mum’.
And I have no doubt that, for a moment, he’s actually thinking about the right person.
‘I miss her too, Dad’, I say. We sit in silence for a minute. Then Dad breaks the silence.
‘That woman over there is a real pain’, he says.
And so it goes on. On one level, Dad is well aware that Mum is dead. On another, he’s a young man in his twenties with his life in front of him. You could get whiplash trying to keep up. One minute he’s making me roar with laughter, and thirty seconds later he’s breaking my heart.
When I mention, at breakfast in my hotel, that my Dad has dementia, the man at the next table opines that if he gets dementia, he’d like someone to ‘take him out and shoot him’.
I do wish that people would think before they implied that my father would be better off dead. Dad has dementia, and isn’t the same as he was, but that says nothing about his quality of life. He still enjoys things. He still laughs. He still ponders and is curious. He isn’t in physical pain, or in mental anguish. I am fairly sure that it is worse for me, watching Dad change, than it is for Dad, who doesn’t remember how he was. He seems to have reached a kind of equanimity, for now. I know that this might change, but I am confident that he wouldn’t want to be shot.
I said none of this to the man at the table. But I shall be ready next time someone says something like it, bearing in mind that no one says such a thing to be unkind. I think dementia speaks to our deepest fears of losing ourselves and becoming dependent, and there is a kind of existential terror in such statements. Nonetheless, I think it is also a reflection on how we value ourselves, and one another. A person with dementia is no less lovable, or less valuable, than anyone else. Dementia challenges us be with the person that we care about in their world, to see things through their eyes, and to love them in all their various moods and incarnations. My father is not the same as he was, but I have never loved him more.
When I get home, I need something to raise my spirits. What with Mum’s death, Dad’s situation and the prospect of selling the family bungalow looming on the horizon I am exhausted and a little heartsick. So, my lovely friend J picks me up and takes me to the Sunshine Garden Centre in Bounds Green for some plant therapy. And what an exciting visit it is!
The picture at the top of the piece shows a new self-watering system for walls called Wonderwall. If only I had a wall to hang them off of, I would be in business! Each set of twelve individual planters costs about £40 so it’s not cheap, and I suspect that someone handy could knock up something very similar for much less. However, I can imagine it being a boon for a small garden or even a balcony. If it was planted up with pollinator-friendly plants it could be abuzz for months. I have to tear myself away though, because I’ve spotted something else.
When I first planted up the garden, I had several of these thistles. Sadly, they died off after a couple of years, but while I had them they were the most desirable plants in the whole garden. Bees used to literally faint into the flowers. They are impossible to resist.
Regular readers will know that I always have some Bowles mauve perennial wallflower in the garden – it is in flower all year round, and the bees love it. The added bonus here is that they are supplied by the Hairy Pot Plant Company, who sell their plants in coir pots that can be put directly into the ground. There is so much plastic in your average garden centre, and this seems like an excellent way of cutting back – how ever many times I reuse my pots, I always end up with a great teetering tower of them in the shed.
I usually let the bees lead me to the best plants, rather than relying on the ‘pollinator friendly’ bee sign on the label. The garden centre is full of hairy-footed flower bees (Anthora plumipes), one of the first solitary bees to emerge in the southern UK. The females are jet black, like one above, and the males are tawny with a distinctive white face. They sometimes fly around with their tongues sticking out, which adds to their charm.
I am excited to see that the hairy pots seem to contain nothing but excellent pollinator plants.
There is pulmonaria, with its flowers that go from blue to pink following pollination. The Lamium is basically domesticated dead nettle, but is another splendid bee plant. There is some very pretty bronze-leafed bugle (Ajuga reptens).
I bought some foxgloves last year, but couldn’t resist a few more…
And how about these? You might have noticed that the lesser celandine is in full flower at the moment. I didn’t realise that there was a cultivated variety, but this is rather splendid with its chocolate-brown foliage. I was musing aloud about whether the plant was as invasive as its wild cousin, and one of the Garden Centre workers suggested that it was ‘vigorous’. To be honest, I don’t mind if something is ‘invasive’ in my north-facing, claggy soiled, heavily treed back garden, but I have resisted this plant so far. Let’s see how strong my resolve is.
And so I stagger to the checkout with a trolley full of plants and a head full of planting plans, and realise that for a whole hour and a half I haven’t thought about Mum, or Dad, or decluttering the bungalow. Instead, I feel a sense of possibility that I haven’t felt in a while. For a second, I feel almost guilty. And then I remember that I got my creativity from my mother, and my love of nature from Dad, and I know that they would want me to live according to those two principles. I often feel completely stuck, as if I’m buried up to my waist in mud, but something still calls me , step by faltering step, back into life.
Plants, gardening, walking in natural spaces are all therapeutic in their own way. I have an aunt who lives in a village near Dorchester, a town I got to know well many years ago after having spent nearly a day wandering through it and following some of the Thomas Hardy walks. You write so beautifully of your Dad and are spot on about our innermost fears of losing control. I wish you the inner strength to cope with what lies on your plate.
Thanks, Anne. Gardening and being in nature certainly helps!
I do love reading your articles – but do you have to make me cry every time ?!
The wild celandine is looking lovely at the moment – especially in the sun !
Sorry Leo. I suspect some cheerier ones might be coming along soon :-). And yes, I love lesser celandine, the way it’s here one minute and gone the next….
Apart from going for long walks and being at one with nature there’s nothing like a good spend up at the garden centre. We’ve often bought plants from the Hairy Pot Company, they do a good range of bee friendly plants. We have all the plants you mentioned, Bowles Mauve seems to flower for months and we’ve often likened the noise from the bees on Pulmonaria to that of Heathrow Airport 😀. There is one plant that we find that the bees go to before anything else and that’s Linaria Purpurea, the Purple Toadflax, we haven’t seen it to buy in plant form but it’s available in seed form. It self seeds freely and well worth getting.
We’re glad your dad is ok and enjoying himself in his own little world, he always seems to be on an adventure, which can’t be a bad thing. We remember our father took to not wanting a shave, he used to say to the nurse i’ll have a shave if you go and get me a newspaper while you’re out which she duly did, but he never did have his shave, he used to take great delight in tricking her.😃
Your Dad sounds very like my Dad. He does love getting his own way :-). Funnily enough, I see lots of purple toadflax in the West Country, but not so much in London. You’re right though, it’s a fabulous pollinator plant, and very pretty….
Another great article straight from the heart! Your conversation with your dad reminds me of many similar ones I had with my late father when he was in a residential home too! Good luck with the decluttering if the family home…not an easy task ahead….
Enjoy your new plants and I am sure the bees will love them!
Thank you; what a heart touching post. We are like plants aren’t we…. ‘stuck in mud’ even up to our waists sometimes & still growing towards the light! Warmest blessings to you x
And to you too, Katy Marianne…
Wonderful post on several levels. Can I just say that as someone who has worked, professionally, with people with dementia, your comments about interacting with your Dad, in his world not ours, struck a strong cord? We can be very arrogant about our reality being the only one worth living in. Thank you.
Thank you, Jenny! From the start I saw no reason to be dragging Dad into ‘reality’ if there wasn’t a good enough reason. I know of someone who tells their mother that her husband is dead every time they see her in the interests of ‘the truth’, which seems to me like an unnecessary torture.
I sympathise with your experience of travelling on the dementia road with your dad. My father-in-law, who died several years ago, had vascular dementia, and like your dad, he lived in both the present and the past – but he was still the lovely, jovial man he had always been. He didn’t know exactly who we were, but his eyes lit up when we went to visit him, and he would say “This is the best day of my life!” At my mother-in-law’s funeral, we were both sad and relieved that he didn’t understand the nature of the occasion. A friend told him he was looking smart, and he said “My wife always makes sure I’m well turned-out” …
Your visit to the Sunshine Garden Centre transported me straight back to my childhood, as this was the site of Durnsford Road Swimming Pool, where I spent many happy sunny Saturdays, from the age of about five right through my teens. It gave me an early taste of freedom from parental supervision, as my sister and I were allowed to spend hours swimming and sunbathing with our friends. This wonderful lido closed soon after I left the area, and I knew it had become a garden centre. I was very sad about loss of somewhere that had been so important to me – but I feel differently now that I know it is such a lovely place for both plants and people.
Thanks, Liz! Dad really seems to enjoy some of the activities at the home, and is endlessly amused by the antics of the other residents (I suspect most of them are sometimes amused by what he gets up to too). And yes, garden centres are such hubs for socialising and sharing insights into gardening, as well as spending way too much money of course 🙂
A very hirsute post what with hairy footed bees and hairy pots. The vertical gardening scheme amounts to daylight robbery IMHO. I have improvised at the school garden with a pallet slotted over two stakes in the ground with yogurt pots and ice cream tubs wired onto it. This is year two and it is work in progress. Learning a lot of positive things from your account of your
dealings with your Dad.
Yes, ‘daylight robbery’ seemed like an appropriate way of describing it, especially as you still have to nail it together and sort it all out. Long live yoghurt pots and ice-cream tubs! I have quite a lot of tubs left over from various birdfood experiments, and am thinking that they are probably big enough not to dry out if I planted them up. I just wish I was a bit ‘handier’. I should have paid more attention when Dad was doing ‘stuff’….
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