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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Beginning, Middle and End

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Molly, my youngest, went off to university this week and this set me thinking about the cycle of life. I’ve had the odd brief message, just enough to know that Fresher’s Week is going well and that she’s making friends and getting used to living in London. This has nudged my twenty-eight years of parenting into a new phase—being there for them, but not all the time. People often talk of empty nest syndrome but right now even though she’s gone, the nest isn’t empty and that’s because my father-in-law Frank lives with us.

Molly is eighteen, I’m fifty-seven and Frank is ninety-six. That means that I’m positioned right in the middle – thirty-nine years older than one, and thirty-nine years younger than the other. In looking at these two members of my family I get a sense of what has passed and a taste of what the future might hold.

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We brought Frank to live with us fourteen months ago and hoped to spend some happy times with him. We managed that quite well up until the Spring—pushing his wheelchair across the Common to the pub, lunch in the sunny haven of my little garden, meeting up with friends, and having him there for family meals and celebrations. But he is very old and frail. Over the past year he has had three episodes of pneumonia, umpteen urine infections, several falls, two brain bleeds, seizures, his voice is reduced to a croak, and there is ever increasing deafness, loss of vision and confusion.

It’s been hard for him to give up control. We’ve tried for as long as possible to keep him doing things independently but he now needs help with almost everything. He gets very frustrated at these losses. “Don’t worry, we’ll look after you,” I’ve said at times, thinking it was reassuring. “Why can’t I do it myself?” he’s replied. And he’s then repeated that question over and over again. “Because you are old,” we say, but it doesn’t seem to help.

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I’ve realised through being with him that’s it’s crucial to know where we are in time—the season, the day of the week and most vital of all, the time of day. I can only imagine that without this knowledge it would be like floating in space with no anchor. Frank has a talking watch and presses the button throughout the day and night. But it doesn’t always give him what he needs. “What time is it?” he’ll ask, his face full of barely suppressed fear. “My watch says it’s one. There are two one-o’clocks in the day aren’t there – after lunch and at night. Which is it?” There’s little we can do to reassure him. We tell him and two minutes later he has forgotten.

So much of his body and his mind have suffered erosion. But his hair remains—thick and white.  A carer said on washing and dressing him for the first time, “I’m really sorry but I’ve made him look a bit punky.” “Don’t worry,” we said, “It always looks like that.” I enjoy imagining his mother back in the 1920s—a woman I will never meet being exasperated with her small son’s hair as she gets him ready for school. I’m bonding through the ages with her; mother to mother.

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We’ve met many good people in this year of living with Frank. The NHS and Social Services have been wonderful. Various carers come to get him washed and dressed and this week one of them offered to sit with him on her day off so that we could have some time together. “I don’t want any payment,” she said. “Just a cup of tea and a biscuit.” We happened to know that she is working fifteen days in succession. We couldn’t let her use her day off like this but the offer was undoubtedly genuine. Our friend Sheila regularly makes us meals and is sitting with Frank this weekend as we move furniture and boxes into our new home. And there was the elderly care consultant who came to see us in June and said gently what we had been denying to ourselves. He has progressive dementia. And in these past few weeks it has progressed very fast. He is lost in a world of agitated pacing and unintelligible rambling.

When he first came to us we considered finding someone to come and chat to him about the war. This was the formative period of his life and the one that he referred back to when other memories had gone. Then we realised that anyone who was able to chat about the war would themselves be in their nineties. As a child I knew plenty of people who remembered the First World War, let alone the second one. Now they are all gone. Life passes quickly. I don’t want to waste a moment.

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