One of the many strange things about my father’s presentation with mixed dementia is that I have no memory of him losing his memory. I put this down to personality – his not mine. Geoff is, and was, fiercely independent. He has always been in to Xtreme ‘Do-It-Yourself’. Geoff did EVERYTHING himself. Until recent years he regularly emerged from his garage, perfectly coiffured, after setting to with a pair of wallpaper scissors. He dodged the dentist for twenty-seven years by the ingenious employment of household implements and a tube of Araldite. I have known him perform minor surgery on himself. His refusal to let others administer to him led him, I believe, to conceal any self awareness he may have had of memory impairment. Dementia is an implacable enemy but, when tackled with extreme cunning and denial, it can be masked, at least for a while.
Geoff’s difficulties became apparent via escalating chaos and a sequence of uncomfortable shocks. An eagle eyed gardener, he failed to note that his peonies were floundering in a sea of ground elder; even worse, when this was pointed out he shrugged. He was hospitalised with a deep vein thrombosis because he had become creative in his approach to medication, overdosing on certain tablets and blithely disregarding others. The business of taking Geoff in hand was, and continues to be, both necessary and difficult; it is defined by reserve and procrastination. When “Honour thy father” is written through you like a stick of rock accessing their savings account never sits comfortably. As a family we remain profoundly grateful that our cowardice in not confiscating his car keys from the get- go did not result in a serious accident.
The inexorable nature of dementia means that there are many Rubicons to cross; some of these are widely recognised as painful- and for good reason. The first time my father failed to recognise me and the first instance of incontinence have not lost their poignancy over time. Dementia limits future possibilities; it brings about many kinds of loss including loss of control and skill in addition to loss of memory and independence. Geoff was an accomplished musician with perfect pitch and a beautiful baritone voice; it is a great sadness and surprise to us all that music no longer holds any significance for him. Despite the tribulations, however, Geoff’s dementia does not detract from all of life’s pleasures – at times I find myself wondering if it could possibly even enhance them.
Dementia has allowed me to say a long ‘Goodbye’ to my father. Although progressive, his illness has plateaued, at times, enabling us all to spend some quality time with Geoff. We have bonded and laughed over reminiscence books and jigsaws, cuddly toys and sweets – (he may refer to me as “one of the brown haired ones” but he recognises Bertie Bassett instantaneously on a box of liquorice allsorts). Dementia has meant that it is possible to relax in companionable silence with The Man Who Was Never Still and who would have vamoosed rather than be left alone with any one of his three daughters.
I have read that dementia robs you of being who you are; in some senses this is true. I would never have had Geoff down as a Strictly Come Dancing fan. Exactly who you are is a tricky one, however. In some ways I feel that dementia has confirmed to me exactly who my father is. It is still Geoff against the world – in his present circumstances the world of shower gel. Pugilist, project manager and fixer of all things, he still reacts to injustice and cruelty and still loves babies. He is still polite and grateful and he will always be dignified. If dementia strips me back to my essence, I hope that I measure up to my father.
Geoff looked out for one of his neighbours with an advancing dementia over a period of years. A familiar reflection in the privacy of his own home was, “If I get like that shoot me!”. Well he has got like that, and worse, but we have not shot him and I really do not think he would like us to. There is too much life left to live, too many abiding friendships, trusting encounters and daily pleasures to take him at his word quite yet. I suspect that I may always feel like this.