These past few days I have been spending time with my ageing father and his resident carer at his home on the south coast. He has reached a stage in life where his appreciation of what is going on is necessarily restricted by his physical and mental frailties notwithstanding the fact that those professionals in the know – his doctors and carers – constantly assure us that he is doing well for his age (93).
These things are relative, of course. For the family it remains a source of regret and occasionally sadness that he is not how he used to be, a somewhat illogical theme since the human condition decrees that passing time makes this impossible and there is a degree to which actual age and biological age can be quite different things.
(I saw a media report this week upon a new research study that habitual smokers in their thirties can be as much as two decades ‘older’ than their non-smoking counterparts).
One occasionally reads or hears of some in their late nineties who remain mentally as bright as buttons whilst others can be noticeably ‘off the pace’ in their late seventies or early eighties. I’d guess that my parent is now somewhere between the two because at different times of the day, without any notice, he can veer instantly between one and the other which can sometimes wrong-foot those in his company.
We brought the large television from the snug and an outside garden table from the terrace into the large drawing room, thus effectively creating a temporary ‘bed-sit’ set-up whereby we can all sit together, chatting, reading or watching the television, and then – at meal times – simply move to the back of the room to have our meals.
It has worked so well that we have retained it ever since.
In contrast, when members of the family pitch up, we tend to remain at the house and run a somewhat chaotic but homely lifestyle. Most days a fire gets lit and between meals we spend our time together in the drawing room.
From his commanding vantage point in his upright armchair my father spends the bulk of his time flicking through a newspaper apparently engrossed in its contents – a social device he deploys to disguise or ‘explain’ his inability to contribute to the ongoing conversation.
About three or four times per hour he may suggest – or ask – whether anyone else has noticed or thinks that the fire is going out.
(Which it isn’t).
Or he asks what day it is and/or each of us whether we will be staying the night. Upon receiving the reply, whatever it is, he often continues by asking where he will be staying, or would we mind if he stayed here as well.
This is a somewhat challenging query because – had he been whom he used to be (and whom, the carers regularly remind us, he no longer is) – one might naturally have responded with a variation on the theme of “What are you talking about, you silly old fool – you’ve lived here for forty-one years!”
Instead we have learned over time to ignore all that and resort to simply saying “Here” or “Of course not” … which magically seems to satisfy his curiosity. And so we all move on.
A few weeks ago, over a period, my father repeatedly confided in me that he was currently feeling a bit of a shit because he hadn’t visited his mother for several weeks – a failure that would have been somewhat difficult to avoid since she died over four decades ago. Either embarrassing him or helping him each time (I wasn’t sure which) I simply pointed this out.
Contrast that with the experience of our current carer, who last week fielded another of my father’s ‘regulars’ – “Do you know where Queenie [my father’s nickname for my mother] is?”, asked in a tone suggesting that the interviewer had been with her earlier in the day but that she might have temporarily have gone out, e.g. on a shopping expedition. [She actually passed away twelve years ago].
In response the carer reported that he had assured my father that Queenie had indeed gone out but would be back soon. That seemed to satisfy and the subject was never raised again.
It struck me that the key in such circumstances is to appear calm and unconcerned – however loopy the comment or inquiry – and trot out some bland reply which implies neither that that my father has suddenly and completely lost his marbles, nor that there is anything to be concerned about. This partly on the basis that, with his short-term memories issues, within twenty minutes or so my father will have totally forgotten the exchange anyway.
And yet then something like what happened yesterday occurs.
A somewhat eccentric old friend of my father’s who lives some distance away had rung me to announce he was going to be in the vicinity yesterday and ask whether he could drop by to pay his respects about 11.00am. I said yes.
Meanwhile, as elderly folk sometimes do my father, perhaps aided by adrenalin and anticipation of the visit, had ‘got himself up’ for the event and performed creditably well.
It was as if a heavy cloak of five years’ worth of decline has suddenly slipped from his shoulders.
Although ten minutes after the old pal had departed my father had returned to his ‘normal self’, I found myself feeling positive and encouraged that the session had taken place at all.