Dear Readers, I was in Dorchester visiting my Dad this week, and the nursing home is revving up for Christmas. Dad had made me a present – he’d coloured in the drawing above, and had insisted on being given a red pen, because
‘You can’t have a Christmas tree without red balls’.
And who is to argue? Dad had even signed it. He really enjoys doing a bit of colouring in, though I think he regards it as a favour to the carers. After all, how does he find time?
‘I’ve been for tea with the Queen a couple of times this week’ he announced.
‘What’s it like, Dad?’ I asked.
Dad shrugged. ‘It’s a bit boring really’, he said, ‘but I have to keep going because otherwise she gets annoyed’.
Dad is in a good mood today, and is delighted when we get a taxi and head off to the garden centre in Poundbury. The place is like the Tardis – from the outside it looks tiny, but inside there’s a route that goes through a woodland scene with nodding reindeer, a frozen north area with cuddly penguins bobbing up and down, and a whole array of Christmas jumpers. I nearly buy Dad a Christmas pudding hat, but stop myself in the interests of maintaining his dignity, and decide that I’ll get one for me. Dad is, however, pleased with the musical Christmas tie that we get him. He plans to dress up for Christmas lunch, and I hope that this year we’ll all be able to enjoy it a bit more. Last year it was only a week after Mum died, and we were all shell-shocked.
We head off to the pub across the road, where they are doing pie and mash. Dad rubs his hands together in delight. Unfortunately, it’s a relatively posh pie (i.e. one with shortcrust pastry and chunks of meat) and I think Dad was looking forward to a ‘proper’ pie and mash dinner. As any East Ender knows, you have to have a flat, rectangular pie, with flour and water pastry and a filling of ground beef, with mash that hasn’t got anything fancy like butter in it, and ‘liqor’ – a green parsley gravy made from the water that the eels have been cooked in (for jellied eels). It’s one of those local things that you either grew up with and love, or don’t ‘get’ at all.
One of the main London purveyors of pie and mash, Manze’s, sells frozen pie and mash and liqor, and I have a cunning plan to buy some for Dad in the New Year. They have a microwave at the home, so I’m sure it’s possible!
I often wonder what goes on in Dad’s head these days. Have a look at the picture below, which he painted a year ago, not long after he’d gone into care.
It’s a tree with a Robin in it, and in a way it’s rather beautiful – I love the colours, and the way that he’s stippled the leaves and the bark. But there is something amiss with the angle that it’s been painted at. Unless, it strikes me now, it’s a branch coming out of the main tree, in which case it makes a bit more sense. The scientist in me wonders what can be told from these drawings, and if the art of people with vascular dementia (like my Dad) is different from that of folk with Alzheimer’s Disease. But somehow, while Dad’s drawing and colouring is as bright and lively as it is at the moment, I feel as if he’s doing ok.
Dad was always an uncommunicative man, but somehow, since his stroke back in 2003 and then his dementia, his feelings are much closer to the surface. His delight and interest in things is clear, as is his sadness. We are fortunate that he doesn’t get angry very often, and can usually be helped to feel better. One of his favourite carers tells me that when he starts to get agitated (which is normally when he thinks that he should be somewhere else, or that he needs to do something about the ‘lorries’ that he doesn’t own), she tells him that she is his secretary, and he tells her what needs to happen. Just recently, he wanted to get the lorries sorted out for Christmas, and his carer noted it all down and came back half an hour later to tell him that she’d done it. To be with someone who has dementia, it seems to me vital to have imagination, and to be able to play. I am gradually learning to relax into Dad’s world, to go with his train of thought however otherworldly it seems. It takes so little to keep him happy.
What is hardest is when Dad talks about not being able to see Mum. Sometimes it’s because he’s done something wrong (and I can normally persuade him that Mum loves him and isn’t cross with him). This time, it was because ‘Mum and the kids’ were all so spread out geographically, and it just wasn’t possible to organise transport.
‘So I think I’ll just stay here’, says Dad, and I agree that that would be for the best, what with Santa and two reindeer visiting the home tomorrow.
Sometimes, the nurse rings me if Dad’s getting agitated, and he and I have a little chat. Often I’m not quite sure what’s the matter (it might be to do with money, or with Dad’s non-existent haulage business), but I’ve learned that a calming tone of voice and reassurance works best. I got one of those calls last week, and at the end of it, Dad sighed with relief, and said:
‘It’s good to know that I’ve got you to fall back on’.
And my heart just opened.
‘Yep’, I said. ‘You’ve always got me to fall back on, Dad’.
And so he has.