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Running on empty

I’ve been spending the weekend with my ancient father down in the one of the many backwaters dotted along the South Coast of Britain. In many respects it is a bizarre situation to be in because, of course, families matter so much and coping with the vicissitudes of old age are complicated and yet – at the same time – there’s only so much filial duty one can undertake before it begins to slip towards burden status.

My parent is looked after at his home by a series of live-in carers whom as a matter of principle he has never accepted he needs – and indeed never will – although, of course, he definitely does.

By anecdotal evidence from the carers themselves, it appears that – for the vast bulk of people being cared for in this manner – the average in terms of the frequency of family visits is about once every six weeks if they’re lucky. In some sad cases they get none at all, either because the family just aren’t that close or (for example) they live abroad and can justify to themselves why, in lieu of making the effort, they opt instead to pay good money for ‘first class’ care partly, no doubt, to stave off any residual feelings of guilt to which they might be prey from time to time.

In our case, certainly in mine, whenever I am going about my business in my own neck of the woods, I get a least one call – and often several – per day from my father asking plaintively “What are your plans?” and/or “When are you next coming down?”. This is, as often as not, within 24 hours of me having just spent between one and four successive days with him. An inevitable factor in this routine is the fact that his short-term memory is getting poor enough that ‘every day is a brand new day’, partly (presumably) because his overnight slumber has effectively wiped the memory slate clean. This applies irrespective of how recently he last set eyes upon you.

You cannot blame anyone for this situation because it’s part of life. Yet at the same time it can gradually wear you down.

With him constantly demanding attention even though he rarely initiates conversations anymore and instead tends only to react to questions or prompts whilst flicking through the pages of whatever newspaper is to hand in order to give the appearance of being focused and busy, the opportunities to relax are few.

Towards the end of each day you find yourself craving that wonderful moment when he announces he’s off to bed – which can occur any time between 6.00pm and 8.00pm – and finally you can get some me-time before retiring to bed yourself.

Yesterday I spent an unusually uncomfortable 90 minutes with him. Having been out to a tea party built around watching TV coverage of the Grand National we returned to home about 6.15pm, to be fair both of us somewhat weary. I know I was. We then sat together in his drawing room waiting for him to declare he felt it was time for bed.

But he never did.

And so, with him mute save when responding to comments or questions and flicking through an old family photographic album to pass the time, I found myself rapidly running out conversational topics.

Eventually my cupboard was rendered bare. Thereafter we spent the best part of 40 minutes staring blankly into space, or individually looking around the room, me initially in semi-panic mode desperately rummaging through my brains in a doomed effort to unearth something new to say. However, in the end I just gave up the quest and sat there in our collective silence until I could take it no more.

About 7.45pm I announced that I was bush-wacked and would he mind very much if I took myself off to bed. Which I then duly did.

About Bryn Thomas

After a longer career in travel agency than he would care to admit, Bryn became a freelance review of hotels and guest houses at the suggestion of a former client and publisher. He still travels and writes for pleasure. More Posts