Biting the Dentist’s Finger

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Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen

It must be a relief to the Queen to have got to New Year’s Day, and Paul McCartney is surely feeling thankful, too. Many other familiar figures haven’t been so fortunate this year and I for one, will particularly miss Alan Rickman and Leonard Cohen. But making it to the finish line of 2016 is no protection against the inescapable process of ageing, and Buckingham Palace recently announced that the Queen is reducing her workload. It came as a surprise because she has been monarch for so long, but to step down as patron from just twenty-five of her six hundred favoured organisations, seems entirely reasonable— in her ninety-first year, she of all people has earned the right to slow down a bit.

This year, the ageing process has had a big impact on my own family and I’ve written previously (The Old Man and the Pea, Enhanced Eating, Beginning, Middle and End), about the 96-year old gentleman who lived for many months in my sitting room. This July he became my father-in-law and a few months later we moved to the house that was refurbished with his needs in mind. The garage has been converted into a bedroom and separate wet room for him, but sadly he has been unable to make much use of them. A brain bleed in the summer exacerbated his confusion, and by the time we moved, he had descended into dementia with disturbed nights, falls and agitation. This autumn it became clear that we could no longer cope, and he went to live in a nursing home a few miles away. We’ve had inevitable moments of sadness and doubt but we know that he needs professional care, from trained staff who have all the right equipment and can care for him around the clock.

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We visit regularly but the variability of his condition means that we never know what to expect. Some days he is unable to walk and the carers use a hoist to move him. On other days, he sets off down the corridor at quite a speed, a small white-haired figure hunched purposefully over his walking frame. There have been occasions when we’ve sat with him and he has barely responded; some when he has produced long fluent-sounding sentences that make no sense, and others when he has been chatty and business-like as if trying to regain some control over his life. ‘Now, what’s going on?’ he asked briskly on a recent visit, ‘Are we waiting for the paperwork?’

At the moment he is fairly lucid and can recite long stretches of the poetry that he learned over seventy-five years ago as a young man. But it’s all rather patchy and he couldn’t make much sense of the recent festivities. ‘I’m having trouble placing Christmas. It’s some kind of religious thing, isn’t it?’

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The good days are to be treasured and sometimes he dredges up surprising memories. I was sitting with him a few weeks ago, when he told me a story about his sister, Betty: ‘The dentist stuck his finger in her mouth, and she nearly took the end of it off. The police wanted to prosecute…’ ‘How old was she?’ I asked, unsure whether I should be conjuring up an image of a naughty 6-year old or a skittish pensioner. But he couldn’t remember and that was the end of the story. ‘Where is she now?’ he asked.  ‘She died,’ I said and then regretted being blunt, as he looked so sad—like he was hearing the news for the very first time.

Not only do we see a lot of Frank, but we’re becoming familiar with the other nursing home residents, too. We try to make polite conversation but usually get little response. One old lady sits at the dining table in baggy clothes, with her hands tidily in her lap. She has club-cut, chin-length grey hair and when we say hello, she stares at us. ‘What’s my name?’ she whispers in quiet desperation.

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It’s reassuring that we turn up unannounced at different times of day and the home is always the same. The staff seem kind and the cook told us recently that Frank asked for apple pie, so she made a little one, just for him. He’s not sure where he is, but does acknowledge that he’s well looked after.

I’ve learned a lot from Frank. I’ve heard his stories of being in the Army during the war, of being in Burma, and of building a successful career in South Africa. He achieved the highest marks in the country in his engineering maths exams, and he raised a clutch of good, kind children. Yet it seems extraordinary to me that until he came into my life, I’d lived for fifty-six years with virtually no exposure to this world of age-related decline. My own parents didn’t live long enough for that. It’s frequently hidden away behind the doors of nursing homes but it’s increasingly likely to have an impact on all of us in one way or another. Recently, dementia overtook heart disease as the leading cause of death in England and Wales.

Over the past year, more than ever, life seems to be galloping along so I want to make hay while it’s sunny. I read recently that one reason why time seems to go faster as we age is that we have fewer novel experiences. Repetition and routine simply don’t stand out in our memories. Last January I resolved not to feel guilty and for some of the time I managed to keep this sentiment in mind. Now it’s time for another resolution and there are still a number of treats waiting on my list. Amongst other things, I hope to visit St Petersburg and Dublin, to do some family history research, to listen to more of the top 100 albums, and to continue walking the glorious South-West Coastal Footpath. There’s nothing I can do to slow time down and no-one, except Benjamin Button ever got any younger. But maybe…just maybe…with a few new experiences it might be more of a trot and less of a gallop.

Happy New Year.

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5 thoughts on “Biting the Dentist’s Finger

  1. Hey Lyn,

    Your experiences certainly resonate with mine in this area. My dad managed to avoid all contact with doctors for 40+ years, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise, when fate inevitably brought him into contact with the medical world in his late 80s, that they found multiple problems competing to do him harm.

    Of these, the most pernicious was dementia. It had probably been there for years more or less unnoticed because he was what we Australians sometimes refer to as a “bullshit artist”, full of anecdotes based loosely on the truth and always ready to adjust the details to suit whatever point he was making at the time.

    But it accelerated dramatically after his medical emergency, and although his ups and downs are less extreme than the ones you describe, they’re none the less unpredictable.

    To make our visits more enjoyable and less distressing for all concerned, we’ve settled on a style of conversation that mixes literary allusions with observations on life, half-invented stories of family history, and references to the many disciplines he’s researched over a long life of insatiable curiosity. The twist that seems to make it work is that we jump from one topic to the next rapidly, mostly in word-association kind of way. We could easily skip from duck hunting to conservation to Leonardo to today’s lunch to Napoleon’s early victories in two or three sentences.

    That way he gets to speak about topics that interest him, without the necessity of consistency or of remembering the overall thread of the conversation, both of which would be unnecessarily taxing.

    It drives my mother mad, not least because her poor hearing makes it hard for her to follow the rapid changes of topic. And until I learned the knack of taking hold of the conversational steering wheel it greatly taxed my general knowledge!

    But as best I can judge, he enjoys it, and I think it leaves him with the same feelings as in the old days of long after-dinner conversations with whichever artist or academic was visiting that day.

    So for him at least, there seems to be life after the narrative thread has ended.

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    • Hi Pip

      That’s a great account – thank you. I can only begin to imagine the conversations you might have! One thing we have learned not to do is to question him. It’s tempting as it helps to tune us into how lucid he is. But it is clearly upsetting for him when we quiz him about family and other things because he is aware that his memory is not good, so we don’t do that now and that seems very much your experience, too with your father. Will definitely try the dotting around and fluidity of topics that you describe. Poetry, trees and South Africa are all good topics for him at the moment.

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  2. Thanks Pip for your reflection about your Dad, which are cheering and thought-provoking. Time with Dad is certainly a roller-coaster: we don’t know what to expect each time we see him. He has been a lot better since initially settling in the care home, which took about six weeks after he moved there at the end of September.

    Before that, by late summer I thought I’d had my last conversation with Dad as I knew him: he was continuously in confusion and distress, often not knowing us, and not showing any knowledge or memory of his life. It was a hard time for him and all of us living with hime. From mid-November, we were astonished when his personality came back, sporadically but quite reliably. It’s a credit to the care he’s getting now. We do spend a lot of time on the same questions of what day it is, when he’ll next see us, how many days until then, where he is living … probably your Dad has the short-term memory loss too. On the other hand we have snatches of The Lady of Shallot, Christmas Day in the Workhouse, You are Old, Father William and more. Stories from his war years and more.

    These are times to be cherished; I resent the intrusion of a mealtime when we’re having such conversation with him. Your thoughts are a real help, Pip: we’re still juddering along interacting with him, trying to keep a flow. We’ll get there.

    Thanks
    Mike

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  3. Hi Lynn,
    Bette Davies said “Old age ain,t for cissies” How right she was!Now i am there myself I find part of me wants to do what i have always done-but another part of me wants to sit down and rest awhile;-)The thing to do I feel is make the MOST of EVERYTHING;-) I have started to notice things happening with someone very close to me.But I am trying to be posItive–mostly it works.
    Support from others is very important-friends are priceless jewels.
    happy New Year and love mxxxxxxxx

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  4. Hi Lynn,
    Our forthcoming play-reading session reminded me to have a look at your blog, which is fascinating! This post on dementia sent me scurrying back to my diary entry of a visit to my late mum;
    Memory and ageing
    Edward de Bono described the impact of experience on the brain as like hot ink on a domed jelly. In a baby, this runs anywhere, creating new, shallow channels all over the place, sending on where the ink (experience) falls.
    In later life, the accumulation of experience has created ravines, which are so drops falling in random places are much more likely to flow into existing channels than create new ones.
    I imagine mum’s 94 year old brain is like Norwegian fjords- sheer cliffs falling straight into a few very deep channels from which there is no escape.
    We took her for a drive through Llanberis, round Snowdon to Beddgelert, and it prompted highly predicable memories, which were a challenge if we wanted to open up a new topic of conversation, but were nevertheless rewarding to hear again. Either she is able to recall more detail at this distance from her childhood and early adult life, or I am paying more attention (or possibly both.)
    So, we heard again about her uncle Charlie’s “shut-eye” moments. Just before the family car reached a breathtaking Welsh viewpoint, he’d order the passengers to close their eyes, the more to heighten the impact on re-opening them. Mum recalled she had only climbed Snowdon once, when aged 21 during the war. Her wartime memories stayed with her longest, probably not surprisingly. She took her finals at Royal Holloway while the blitz was on, never knowing if she’d be able to put her degree to use.

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