Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

A Return to the Barbican

Dear Readers, you may remember that I visited the planting at the Barbican Centre in London a few years ago, and was very impressed. Today, in an attempt to get back to something like normality, I went to see a matinee of Macbeth featuring Christopher (Dr. Who) Eccleston in the Barbican Theatre but before I settled down I wanted to see how the gardens were standing up, and what they looked like in the most uninspiring month of the year. By January, most gardens are looking a bit tired, and one is lucky to have more than a few things in flower. It’s all about texture, and these plantings have that in spades.

The light at this time of year can be strong but the sun is low in the sky, and this creates all kinds of strange effects between the tower blocks. It’s here that the grasses come into their own. The seed heads look molten, glowing with an unearthly fire. I felt as if my poor parched senses were drinking the beauty in.

The icy wind whistles between the buildings, but there were hardy souls weeding and tidying the beds. I told one man how much I enjoyed the gardens at any time of year, and he pointed out a few things that were in flower, a salvia and a little cranesbill. But strangely enough, it’s the starker delights of bark and twig that appeal to me at the moment.

I found one spot, sheltered from the wind, where I noticed the fur on this frosty-leaved plant. I love the way that each leaf has a centre-parting, like a damp-haired schoolboy.

The euphorbia and the Japanese Anemones are still going strong where they have some protection from the cold.

Because of the way that the sun reflects from the windows, there can be strange, fleeting puddles of light.

There is a pond under one of the buildings, and went to see if there was a yellow wagtail, as there had been on a previous visit. Today, there was nothing but reflections.

There are some big, concrete containers that have been planted with a wildflower mix. I was surprised to see cornflowers and mayweed and yarrow still in bloom. I have seen wildflower plantings in a number of other places, but have my doubts as to the provenance of the plants – near to my house in East Finchley, an area has giant yarrow and the largest-flowered creeping thistle that I’ve ever seen. Possibly these are cultivars, but they look remarkably like the wild plants on steroids. The plants here, though, look pretty much like the real thing.

I used to visit the Barbican regularly at lunchtime (I worked just across the road), and it was a most unimpressive place, with the beds full of regimented primulas and well-behaved geraniums. Today it’s a wild and woolly prairie, full of interest even at this time of the year. When I visit in summer the place is full of pollinators having a pit-stop for nectar and pollen. This is an exposed and variable habitat, where the wind scours the soil and the sun blazes down, but the garden is doing well. It just goes to show what can be done with a bit of imagination.

And Macbeth was pretty good too, with the part of the witches taken by three scary children in identical red dresses, and Christopher Eccleston giving it his all in a northern accent and body armour. I get a bit fed-up with the handbrake turns that the characters take, but I think we have to blame Mr Shakespeare for that rather than the performance. It sometimes feels like one of the few Shakespeare plays that could actually do with being a bit longer to allow for the deterioration in the characters’ states of mind. But still, if you fancy a couple of hours of supernatural goings on, the descent of one of the lead characters into madness and all manner of surprising goings-on, this is your play.


Bugwoman on Location – Weymouth

Dear Readers, on Tuesday we went to Weymouth for my Mum’s cremation. We are having a bigger gathering in Milborne St Andrew, where Mum and Dad lived, in February. But Mum wanted to be cremated and, unlike in London where crematoria are ten a penny, in Dorset the nearest one was in Weymouth, a place to which none of us have any connection.

Events like this always put our own choices into the spotlight. My plan is to be buried in a cardboard coffin in a woodland somewhere  – I have no worries about insects munching my bones and helping to recycle me. But Mum was never one for creepy crawlies, and she had been graveside on too many cold, rainy days to want to inflict that on us, so cremation it was. She also thought that it was cleaner, somehow, simpler. I think that she missed a trick by not wanting to be fired into the stratosphere in a rocket, like Hunter S Thompson, but there is still something about the thought of her body, which had been the cause latterly of so much pain, being reduced to its simplest elements that I find comforting. I am so glad that we managed to have some of these conversations before Mum died, so that at least some of what she wanted was clear. It’s never too early to have these discussions with those we love. Life is hard enough after you’ve been bereaved without having to second guess what the person who has died would have wanted.

We went for a walk around the town of Weymouth before the service. It is a fine little town, with a working harbour and its own lifeboat. Everywhere, people were going about their business – walking their dogs, mending nets, sitting on benches and gazing out to sea. It’s surprising how often I glimpse Mum in the colour of a stranger’s hair, the way that they walk, a certain tilt of their head. She seems to be everywhere.

The cliffs that make up the Jurassic Coast peered through the early morning mist. Mary Anning found the fossil of an ichthyosaurus not far from here. It is an interesting part of the world. However, all I could think of was those last few weeks with Mum as her life ebbed away, and my mood coloured everything grey. But then I remembered that the day before Mum went into the Nursing Home, an ice-cream van had parked up outside the school opposite their bungalow, and Mum had been able to enjoy one of those Mr Whippy icecreams with a flake in it. I had never noticed an icecream van there before, so it seemed like fate. Mum adored those soft icecream cones, and even without her teeth, she managed to eat it all. There is grace everywhere, but it’s easy to overlook it.

Everything seemed unreal, as if I was in a dream and would soon wake up to find everything as it should be. But as usual, it took nature to bring me back to reality. Perched above a pile of nets was a pair of herring gulls.

They seemed watchful, and I soon realised why. There was a young herring gull picking through the fish scales and guts on the quayside below, and I suspect that he was their chick.

Like all young birds, young gulls seem so witless, so vulnerable.  This one looked around, and emitted the most plaintive, sad little cry, half way between a squeak and a wail.

‘Oh’, I said, ‘he’s crying for his mother’.

And then, I realised what I’d said, and finally I could lean on my husband’s shoulder and cry for mine. At last I could be present with what was going to happen, the end of my mother’s physical presence on this world, and I could start the remembering that would be the work of the rest of my life. My mother is always with me, in the shape of my eyes, the length of my fingers, my skill with roast potatoes and my love of colour. There is a particularity about each person who walks this earth which comes into the sharpest focus in the weeks and months after they’ve died. They are unique, and they will never come again, and that is what is so, so hard.

But there is solace, nonetheless, in the universality of death, at least for me. Someone described the loss of a parent as an initiation, and it feels like walking through fire. I will not be the same on the other side, but maybe I will be more compassionate and perhaps even wiser. Grief is the price that we pay for loving with all our hearts, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bugwoman on Location – Christmas in Dorchester

St George’s Church, Fordington

Dear Readers, it was a strange, sad Christmas this year, without my Mum. We stayed in Dorchester (at the excellent Westwood House if you’re ever in need of a place to rest your weary head) – the owners, Tom and Demelza, have been so kind, and sensitive to my emotional turmoil too. We have walked up and down to the nursing home where Dad lives, and have found that his mental state has gone from bad to worse. When shown a picture of Mum of he furrowed his brow and asked if it was my brother’s girlfriend. He has regressed to a point where he seems to think that he is in his early twenties, and is planning on running a truck business, and maybe it is a strange kindness that he no longer seems to remember Mum, or the misery of the past few months. It is brutal to have lost both my parents, one to death and one to dementia, and some days I honestly don’t know how I get out of bed. But this time has also shown me that the web of connections between people, both in ‘real life’ and on the internet, is as resilient as spider silk. It has held me when I was afraid that I would fall, and I am so, so grateful.

But life goes on, and on Boxing Day I went out for a walk to Fordington with my husband, an area that I first discovered last week when I went to pick up Mum’s death certificate from the GP’s surgery. I was roused from my sorrow by the enormous church of St George’s standing on the hill, and seeming out of all proportion to the village around it. I loved the mixture of modest houses and massive mansions, and wanted to explore further.

The lane up to St George’s church

The church dates back to the 15th Century, but has some much earlier features: a Roman commemorative stone was found under the porch, and one of the pillars is actually a Roman pillar turned upside down. We can assume that a Roman temple stood on the site originally (Fordington was known as Durnovaria to the Romans, and was separate from Dorchester). Sacred sites are often used and re-used, as we know.

The Roman commemorative stone to Carinus, a nobleman, that was found under the porch in 1908

The upside-down Roman pillar, with the Capitol at the bottom

And as you know, I have always found solace in graveyards, so, after inspecting the inside of the church, we headed to the cemetery. Here, we found the only memorial to German prisoners of war of the First World War in the UK. Most of the prisoners died  during the Influenza epidemic of 1918, and were given full and solemn burial rites. They are honoured in a service on the afternoon of Remembrance Sunday every year, although the bodies have now been moved to the German War Cemetery in Cannock Chase, Staffordshire.

The Memorial to German Prisoners of War in Fordington Cemetery

The memorial was designed by another German POW, Karl Bartholmay and carved by Josef Walter. After the war, Walter emigrated to America, where he worked as a sculptor and made pieces for many public buildings.

By now, we were losing the light, and so we headed back through the churchyard and towards home, past the magnificent yew trees.

Fordington cemetery

And we were nearly home when I spotted something that made me laugh, for the first time in weeks.

This is a rather handsome herring gull ‘puddling’. It always reminds me a little of the Irish Jig. The theory is that the sound made by those big rubbery feet makes the earthworms think that it’s raining, and that their burrows are about to be flooded out, so they come to the surface, whereupon they are grabbed by the gull. There is something about the serious expression of the bird that always amuses me. Sometimes they manage to look slightly embarrassed when observed too.

I have been reading a wonderful book about gulls called ‘Landfill’ by Tim Dee, which discusses all manner of things gull-related. In particular, Dee discusses how landfill sites, formerly a beacon for seabirds, contain less and less edible matter, which is either buried immediately or goes off for biofuels. The ever-adaptable gulls are moving on to other sources of food, such as the icecreams of toddlers or the chips of the casual stroller, and have hence been demonised, as any creature does when it doesn’t ‘know its place’. I rather love these piratical, vaguely menacing birds, with their icy eyes and predatory beaks, and I blessed this one as I passed. He or she had been very obliging with their dance, and topped it all off with a most impressive greeting or threat to another bird passing overhead.

Ah, Dear Readers, what a year it has been. But a walk in nature usually persuades me that life goes on, with all its trials and joys and moments of unexpected comedy. I wish a slightly less tumultous ride for me for 2019, and a cornucopia of good things for all of you lovely people. And here, to finish 2018, is a most handsome dove, one of a group of white birds performing outside the Town Hall. May we all find the peace that the bird represents.




Bugwoman on Location – Big Wood

Oak trees with golden leaves, Big Wood, Hampstead Garden Suburb

Dear Readers, this week I decided to take myself off for a small adventure, in a place that is near at hand but completely new to me. Big Wood is just around the corner from East Finchley, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It is not actually a very Big Wood, but at 7.3 hectares it is bigger than nearby Little Wood, at 1.2 hectares. It was originally part of the Bishop of London’s estate but was leased to many different owners, who coppiced the wood for fence posts and firewood. From 1810, however, it seems that the wood was turned over to oak timber – most of the magnificent oaks date from the 19th century. Furthermore, the understorey is largely hazel coppice, rather than the hornbeams from my local Coldfall wood. The remnants of ancient woodland in North London have been heavily managed since medieval times, and probably for far longer.

It’s not all oak and hazel, however. This tiny wood holds over 80 wild service trees, who spread only from the root of the parent plant in the UK because it’s too cold for the seeds to germinate. They are therefore an indicator of the age of the wood, and also a sign that, however the wood has been managed, some parts have been left alone for centuries. There were still a few of the golden-yellow leaves left.

Leaves of wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis)

There are also true wild crab apple trees. The thick spiny growth on the trunk indicates that these are not ‘wildlings’, trees which have grown up from discarded apple cores, but original trees – some are over a hundred years old. I shall have to visit again when the trees are in blossom – there are lots of wild cherries here too, some of them as tall (though not as robust) as the oaks.

Trunk of a wild crab apple (Malus sylvestris)

As I walk slowly through the wood, I hear the drumming of woodpeckers. Are the males setting up territories already? I hear one bird and then another, a little further away. There is lots of standing dead wood, perfect for nest holes, digging for grubs and percussion.

Nuthatches are scurrying along the branches, excavating under the loose bark for small insects.

An imperfect photo of a  nuthatch (as my photos usually are 🙂 )

But the rowdiest of the forest inhabitants are undoubtedly the ring-necked parakeets, with their squawking and their arguing. I have mentioned before that they are amongst the earliest of the hole-nesting birds, getting themselves settled well before the woodpeckers and the stock doves. A pair in the tree above me were definitely house-hunting, and weren’t above making their own alterations, digging out the hole that they’d found and showering me with bark.

I often find that when I go for a walk I start out at a brisk trot and get slower and slower, eventually coming to a complete halt. And it was while I was sitting on a bench that I noticed how the sun was lighting up the spider silk in the bush opposite me. The more I looked, the more strands I saw.

Onwards! In one part of the wood, the hazel coppice has been cut right down to the ground. The health of a wood depends on having trees of various ages, and the young oak trees here do badly because the older trees completely screen out the light. So, the people managing the wood are transplanting failing young trees into this much brighter area to the north-east of the wood, in the hope that they will thrive there. They have also planted a variety of local woodland flowers in the hope of increasing the biodiversity. I shall have to pop back in the spring to see how it’s all doing.

A coppiced area in Big Wood

As usual, though, it’s often the small things that catch my eye. There are miniature forests of moss on some of the hazel branches.

The holly and the ivy grow together, appropriately as Christmas approaches.

The way that the root of a fallen tree tangles together reminds me of something from the Kama Sutra

And through it all, the dappled sunlight.

Big Wood is a well-used spot, full of children and dog-walkers and runners, and yet it retains a certain wildness, even so. It has seen so many generations come and go but here it still is, getting on with the business of photosynthesising and decay. The cycle of life goes on regardless, and on some days that is a comfort. There’s nothing like standing next to an oak tree to give one a sense of perspective.







Bugwoman on Location – Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park

Dear Readers, hidden away between the Thames Flood Barrier and the United Emirates Cable Car across the Thames is the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, 2 hectares of reedbeds and streams and wetland. You exit North Greenwich station and head along the river, passing all the new apartment complexes. If you’re lucky, you might catch the eye of a very hungry woodpigeon, getting tucked into the rowan berries.

At this time of year, I have to work hard to find beauty on my walks. It’s that in-between time of year – the summer migrants have left, but most of the winter ones haven’t arrived. Most of the trees and plants look a little threadbare and between seasons. But the surrounding buildings are bright and colourful, and the path into the alder scrub looks very inviting. The metallic ‘chink’ calls of goldfinches are everywhere.

On the main pond there are the usual coots dabbling for water plants and bustling about. A sleepy duck of indeterminate parentage is resting on one of the wooden islands.

To my delight there are tresses of traveller’s joy, the wild clematis, tumbling through the shrubs.

There are two main paths, a boardwalk which goes around the edge of the site and which is open 24 hours a day, and an inner path which is only accessible when the visitor centre is open. As I head for the inner path, I get talking to a man with binoculars who tells me that a jack snipe has often been spotted in the reeds, but not today. Similarly there are sometimes herons, but the only one I see today is painted on the side of the building.

I look a little closer. There are some very cheeky magpies, one of whom partly demolished a garden trellis outside one of the flats before taking off into the trees.

The reeds remind me a little of bird of paradise flowers.

And there is a guelder rose, dripping with rain.

What a melancholy little walk this was! I have tried to raise my spirits, and as usual nature has helped, but I have a lot on my mind. As I mentioned last week, Mum and Dad are now in the nursing home, but Mum hates it with an absolute passion. She wants to go home so much that earlier this week she dialled 999 to get the police to come and liberate her. I love her so much for her feistiness and ingenuity, but we are in a bit of a bind. The care that we would need to look after her at home just isn’t available, and the nursing home, Mum and Dad’s GP and the District Nurse all think that Mum, at least, needs residential care. So, there we are. I will go to Dorset next week to talk to everyone involved and see what can be done to make Mum happier. Wish me luck!

On the way home, I notice some people climbing over the Millenium Dome. It doesn’t look too hard from here, but I bet it’s not so much fun actually doing it, especially on a breezy day like today. I guess we all have our mountains to climb….


Bugwoman on Location – The Hardest Week

Dear Readers, last week I described how we had found a nursing home for Mum and Dad. This week, things moved at an extraordinary pace. Mum was rapidly deteriorating – as I travelled down from London, I got a call from the District Nurse who had been visiting Mum regularly to dress her pressure sore.

‘ I think something has changed in your Mum’, she said. ‘I think that her poor body is worn out, and that maybe she doesn’t have the energy to go on for much longer. She might rally, but she might not. There’s nothing medically wrong with her that she doesn’t normally have, but I just wanted to warn you’.

And when I arrived, Mum was wrapped up in blankets in bed, refusing to eat, refusing to take her medication. She was always cold, and her hands shook whenever she tried to hold anything. She had to be helped in and out of the bed to the commode a few steps away.

On Tuesday, the people from the nursing home arrived to do an assessment of Mum and Dad’s medical needs. They asked Dad how he felt about moving in.

‘I’m looking forward to it’, he said, and they were flabbergasted and delighted.

Mum was in no condition to answer anything. When they popped in to see her, she just looked at them with those huge green eyes and went back to sleep.

The admission date was set for Thursday.

‘The sooner the better’, said Dad.

I had a chat with him afterwards.

‘You seem very excited about going into the nursing home’, I said.

‘Well’, he said, ‘it’s for your Mum. I want her to be properly looked after. I wouldn’t be going for anyone else’.

The next few days were a flurry of packing. What do you need for a nursing home? If you’re Dad, you need a couple of blazers, your best shoes and your aftershave. He will be the smartest man in the place. He also brought his beard trimmers. Mum was largely in denial, but she rallied to make her feelings known.

‘I don’t want to go’, she said. ‘I  love it here. I love the house. I love the garden. I love Milborne St Andrew. ‘

‘Mum’, I said, ‘I know you do. But you need more care than we give you in the house now.’

‘Me and your Dad have looked after ourselves for 83 years’, said Mum. She is laying on the sofa, and I have adjusted her pillow position half a dozen times because she isn’t comfortable and can’t do it herself. ‘We’ll be alright’.

And then we have a row, and I tell her that the only reason she’s still in the house is because I’ve been up and down from London like a yoyo, and when I’m in London I’ve been organising everything, liaising with carers, sorting out medical appointments, making online food orders.

She blinks. ‘Well, what else would you be doing?’ she asks.

And that, I think, is it in a nutshell. Mum’s world has shrunk until there is nothing in it but her and her needs. Pain and fear have made her self-centred.

Anyhow,  there is more argy-bargy and I promise that if she hates the place I’ll do something about it, and she promises that she’ll give it a good go.

The morning of the move seems to last forever. We are all packed and ready to go and waiting for our lift. Every so often, Mum tells us that she doesn’t want to go, but she is asleep for most of the time. I wonder for the thousandth time if this is the right thing to do, but we have pretty much run out of options. The clock  ticks, and we sit around and avoid meeting one another’s gaze.

Our lovely neighbours come to give us a run to the nursing home with our suitcases. Dad has his beer and gin packed. We have photos and toiletries and the zimmer frame. Mum sits next to me in the car with her head on my shoulder, holding my hand. I know that she is absolutely terrified. Over the past few days she has developed a horrible infection in one arm, which started as a couple of blisters and turned into a mass of medieval sores. This has been bandaged from top to bottom to try to protect it for the journey. Every so often she winces.

The journey is only about twenty minutes, but it’s the longest ride I’ve ever taken.

And then we get there, and Mum and Dad are shown their rooms. At the moment they’re on different floors, but as soon as a room becomes available Mum will be moved  up. The rooms are purposely small to encourage the residents to use the communal areas, but Dad has special dispensation to sleep in the reclining chair in Mum’s room. One of the reasons that I liked this home was that it was very flexible and treated people as individuals. They know how important it is that Dad and Mum can be together.

On the other hand, Dad is very independent. He’s already reconnoitered the place.

‘There’s a fish tank on my floor, they were cleaning it out this morning’, he said, as we went for an exploratory walk, ‘And there’s music and dancing!’.

I could see him eyeing up the proceedings. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he joined in next time.

Someone asked him if he wanted to be part of the Christmas talent show. To my surprise he didn’t turn it down because of course they wouldn’t be there at Christmas, but merely out of modesty.

‘I can’t do anything’, he said. ‘I haven’t got any talents’.

Mum, on the other hand, is resolutely unconvinced.

‘ I don’t like it here’, she said to me after she’d been in the home for thirty minutes. ‘It’s got Bad Vibes’.

I left them at 6 o’clock, Dad in his pyjamas in the reclining chair with a can of San Miguel in his hand. I went to the guest flat where they were staying and plonked on to the sofa with a mix of emotions. Should I just have left Mum where she was and employed nurses to look  after her in her last days, if indeed this is what they were? Should I have found a different nursing home?

I went out for a curry and a beer, fell into bed at ten o’clock and slept like a log for the first time in six months.

The morning was bright and clear. The staff told me that ten o’clock was a good time to go in, as all the medical stuff would have been done by then. I wandered about in the grounds taking the photos for this piece. I was struck by what I thought at first was a magnificent holm oak,  but then realised that it was two trees growing next to one another, one tree leaning backwards as if they were dancing the tango.

I walked into Mum’s bedroom, expecting a litany of complaints. But Dad had had a good night, and Mum was sitting up. She took all of her tablets. She ate some porridge. She ate half a piece of toast and jam. She looked tired and frail, but not at death’s door, at least not this morning.

‘I don’t like it’ she said. ‘I want to go home’.

I reminded Mum that she’d said that she’d give it a proper try, and that 18 hours was hardly enough time to decide.

‘Alright’, she said, ‘But I still don’t like it’.

‘But there are alpacas coming for a visit this afternoon’ said Dad. The home is visited by therapy alpacas. Who knew there was such a thing?

Mum gave him a look. She is clearly not impressed by the alpacas.

And so we go on. This has been such a quick transition and most people don’t like change, especially as they get older. Mum will need time to get used to the idea of being looked after permanently, and to mourn the loss of her independence and her home.Mum tells me that I don’t understand what those losses mean, and she’s right. What I do know is that this is the best chance that Mum and Dad have to stay healthy, together and out of hospital for the time that remains to them. Whether that will compensate for the loss of autonomy that goes with it, I don’t know.

In a way, so much of Mum and Dad’s ability to make decisions for themselves has already gone. In an ideal world, we would have decided on the future together, and would have gone to visit lots of nursing homes to decide on the right one. Instead, when the crisis came it was an emergency, with the GP saying that they were no longer safe in the house because of Mum’s medical and mobility issues. What Mum did say to me a long time ago was that it was more important that they were together than that they were at home, and that she trusted me to find them somewhere good to live out their days. I hope that at some point, she remembers that conversation. In the meantime I will have to bear the fact that she doesn’t like where she is and that she thinks I’m a terrible daughter. I shall have to harden my heart and rest in the knowledge that I’ve done the very best I can. For now, that will have to do. At least they are safe, warm, comfortable and well-looked after.






Bugwoman on Location – A Glimmer of Hope

Dear Readers, my Dad has always grown roses. They seemed to love the heavy clay soil of London, and all that was needed was some pruning and a bucket of horse manure, and off they went. It has been a little more difficult in the light soil of Dorset, but there are fifteen varieties in flower around Mum and Dad’s bungalow. There is the heavy-headed ivory-pink  rose that Mum could see from the kitchen window, when she was able to stand long enough to do the washing up. There are the standard roses, one cerise, one velvet-red, that Dad’s sisters bought for their diamond wedding anniversary. There are blue-grey roses and yellow roses, and an apricot one that doesn’t have many flowers, but makes up for it in the perfection of those petals.

Hidden in the garden are fairies and fawns and meerkats, all peeking up through the undergrowth. There is a model of St Francis of Assisi who often has a live robin perched on his head. The twelve-foot high beech hedge is a-twitter with sparrows, and a blackbird nests there.

This week I went gathering roses in the rain. I found some blooms on the ivory rose that weren’t yet speckled pink from the rain. The red rose was bowed down, the edges of some of the petals dry and crinkled like the pages of an old book. A yellow rose disintegrated as soon as I touched it. I cut the loveliest blooms in the garden, arranged them in a rose bowl and took them into the living room. I put them on the table next to Mum’s reclining chair.

‘Pretty’, she said, ‘But they smell too much, can you put them over there?

Mum has been smelling things that aren’t there – fish, burning, faeces. It’s strange how she never imagines honeysuckle or jasmine or freesia. And normal everyday smells, like a bunch of roses or a roasting chicken, are overwhelming to her. She came out of hospital, after seven weeks, a shadow of the woman who went in, and with a worsened pressure sore, a lot of physical weakness and much increased confusion. Hospital has had a bad effect on both Mum and Dad – after a two week stay, Dad’s dementia symptoms skyrocketed.

So much has been going on, but the general trend is downwards. Take last night, for example. Dad had a doctor’s appointment on Friday, and he was anxious about it, so he popped into my bedroom at 11 o’clock, 1 o’clock, 3 o’clock and 4 o’clock to ask me if it was time to go yet. Then at four o’clock Mum woke up and was extremely agitated. She wants to get out of bed, then she wants to get back in. She no longer remembers the layout of the house. She no longer remembers how to operate her reclining chair. Sometimes, she doesn’t quite remember where parts of her body were. I managed to hurt my back moving her over in the bed, and when she was solicitous of my pain I had to walk outside for a quick weep and to pull myself back together.

And this morning, dad’s chest is bad (he has COPD) and so he didn’t get to the doctor anyway. As I write this, he is back on the antibiotics and the steroids, and we’re praying that he doesn’t end up back in hospital.

And it is to counteract scenarios like this that I finally talked to the doctor, who advised that finding a nursing home for Mum and Dad was now the best option. In a nursing home they could keep Mum and Dad together, and endeavour to reduce the amount and duration of hospital visits that they required. Plus, they would be looked after properly, 24 hours a day.

I was sceptical at first. I visited one nursing home that had an artificial beach and a dedicated cinema room, and still didn’t feel that it was right for Mum and Dad. I ruled out many on the grounds of their CQC reports. It’s hard to find a home that will look after both people with dementia and who are physically frail, (though this could be a red herring since Mum has been less coherent since she came out of hospital). And then I visited a home in the centre of Dorchester, and as soon as I walked through the door I got the feeling that this was an open, friendly, person-centred place. I talked to the manager, and we clicked straight away. And, unusually, she had two rooms available.

Do you sometimes get a feeling that something is fate?

The reason that I was going to this home was because Mum and Dad’s GP had had a relative stay there until she died, and he had visited it frequently. It soon seemed that everyone had a good word to say for it – one of our lovely carers had worked there, the taxi driver’s partner still worked there, the district nurse had worked there. All of them reported back to Mum and Dad that it was a good place.

Dad went from ‘I don’t want to try that’ to ‘I don’t want to sell the bungalow for less than £300k’ in 24 hours. I’m not sure that Mum really understands what’s going on a lot of the time. But I honestly think that this is the best chance they have for a fourth act in their lives, a chance to have a wider circle of people to talk to and things to do. They have both agreed to give the home a go, and so we have an assessment happening next Tuesday. I hope and pray that it goes well, and that Mum and Dad are prepared to try it, because we are running out of choices.

Certainly I can’t go on the way I am at the moment. I had terrible chest pains that turned out to be nothing when investigated, but which scared me at the time. I am exhausted, and stressed, and not, I fear, the good and patient nursemaid that I was when all this started several years ago. Not enough is written about how caring for people long-term changes the whole nature of the relationship. To me, for much of the time,  Mum and Dad are not primarily my parents, but have become patients, a project to be managed. I  don’t have time to sit down and actually talk to them because I’m sorting out medications, doctors’ visits, transport to the hospital, the online grocery order, the army of carers and agencies. I would like to be able to spend some real time with Mum and Dad, to listen to them, to hear their stories while there is still time. I want to know them as people again, and I have gradually lost that in the slowly rising flood of other responsibilities.

I am travelling down again next week for the assessment meeting on Tuesday and if all goes well, Mum and Dad could possibly be ensconced by the end of the week. It’s all happening so quickly that I’m struggling to keep up but if something feels right, it seems appropriate to go with the flow. We won’t do anything hasty with the bungalow until we’re absolutely sure that Mum and Dad are happy (in spite of Dad’s encouragement to do otherwise). I recognise that it will be a big transition for Mum and Dad, and that there will be bumps along the way, but it feels like the right thing to do.

And I also have to deal with my own grief that things are changing. A way of life could be coming to an end for me, too. As I cut the roses and bury my face in those soft, fragrant petals, I realise that this might be the last time that I am able to fill a bowl with them. Mum and Dad have loved this bungalow, and especially the garden, and so have I. But if things work out, this garden will soon be someone else’s delight, and that’s as it should be. And I will have to let go of my role as primary carer and organiser, and to let someone else manage all that, and that will be hard too. But everything changes, in nature and in our lives, and so much suffering is caused by grimly hanging on when we could be letting go. There will be much sorrow during the next few weeks, I’m sure, but in my heart I feel the tentative growth of hope.

Still life with medications