Carers and relatives of people with dementia will tell you there are the good days and there are the not-so-good days. Sadly, sometimes, it seems there are fewer of the former when we seem to make a real connection to our loved one. The latter, when there is no connection at all, seem to crowd in on us. Today was one of the latter days for me.
I called to see Mum just after lunch. She was snoozing and reacted in rather a grumpy fashion when woken by Michelle. I was greeted by a smile (encouraging) but there was no sense that Mum knew who was visiting her. Michelle encouraged her: “Who is it?” Mum merely employed the all-embracing smile which suggests that she might vaguely recognise the face, but has little or no idea to whom it belongs.
Tired of flicking through “Worcestershire Life”, I’d taken Mum a wildlife magazine, hoping the pictures of animals might inspire some interaction. It was a forlorn hope. There was no conversation to be had.
I told Mum about her cousin who’s been in hospital and who’s now recuperating in a care home. Mum is ten years younger than Pam and when I visited her earlier, Pam remembered Mum being born. She recounted, with a little horror, thinking that when baby Mum was ten, she’d be 20 and quite old! Today, in her 80s, Pam is as sharp as a tack and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of her car again. Her father had dementia in his final years and for her, Mum’s condition is acutely painful, bringing back unwelcome memories.
I also talked to Mum about the annual get together of “the crowd”, a group of friends some of whom have known each other for almost seven decades. They meet up in a hotel to share memories and great companionship and Mum and Dad never missed the party. Mum went to junior school with some in the group and thanks to the value she put on staying in touch, remained close to them until dementia’s grip loosened those binds of friendship more than four years ago. I’ve never met anyone who was as good at staying in touch as Mum. There was a standing joke in the family that each Christmas, Mum would add a note to the cards to Dad’s friends – “Roger will write in the new year.” Mum never said which new year and Dad rarely wrote. In contrast, Mum had to start writing her cards in November to include all the letters, containing family news and god wishes.
It seems especially cruel that someone for whom friendship was so important now knows nothing of the friends she has. And that’s why conversation is so difficult. The common currency of friendship and acquaintance no longer exists. I tell Mum that Pam’s getting better, or that my sister’s away on holiday, and it’s as if I’m speaking a foreign tongue.
And yet, Mum seems to be at peace with herself. I’m truly grateful for that. On various hospital and care home visits recently, I’ve seen what it’s like when there is no peace, when a person appears trapped by inner fears. And so, while it was one of the not-so-good days for me as visitor today, it was just another day for Mum. These days, it seems, I can hope for nothing more.