It has been a difficult time recently, but today is New Year’s Day, and it occurred to me – lying awake in the dark watches of the night – that this is the perfect time to make a new start. I have been feeling the need to somehow log this era of my life, record it in some way, and to have an outlet for my feelings and emotions as I help care for my elderly parents, but up ’til now I haven’t found a way. And then it struck me that I have had this blog page for years, sitting idle. Now is the time to put it to use.
So I shall start. It is New Year’s Day. I spoke to my mother this morning. She is well, had a good night, and for once sounded rested. She doesn’t often sound rested these days. so it was good to hear her voice sounding light, to talk about the day that’s in it, to tell her of our early walk with the dogs and go on to chat about all the animals, dogs and cats, she has had, and loved, and misses. I suppose it is largely because of my mother that I have felt unable to write about this anywhere else. My other blog, Writing from the Edge, has been a part of my life for years, but my mother has been a regular reader from the start, so naturally I haven’t felt free to say what’s on my mind.
My mother is 84, and although she doesn’t – apparently – have Alzheimers, she is certainly suffering from exhaustion-related forgetfulness, which amounts to dementia, whether it has a recognisable name or not. She is my 94 year old father’s primary carer, and is doing an amazing job. But – but – as anyone who has cared for elderly relatives knows, there is no status quo. Everything changes on a daily basis, and sometimes things are only as good as last night’s rest. Nowadays, I am one of my mother’s primary carers, and, as anyone who has filled a similar role knows, it’s not easy.
One major problem is that I live in a different country, so it is an hour’s drive, a flight, a two hour wait, an hour and a half’s bus journey and then a half hour taxi or lift to reach her. I’m lucky, she isn’t on the other side of the world. She lives on the East Anglian coast of the UK, while I live on the west coast of Ireland. It is perfectly do-able, just not instantaneous. My sister, on the other hand, lives 15 minutes down the road from our parents, and has, for years, filled all the gaps. But, however much you love your relatives, it is arduous and ever-increasing work to care for them in old age. It is also work that, however lovingly given and however much appreciated, can easily be taken for granted, not just by the primary recipients, but by the rest of the family.
They are lucky, my parents. They are fundamentally very fit and still live together in their own home, in the centre of a beautiful village. But nearly three years ago the inevitable happened: my mother had a fall and the slow but inexorable downward spiral began. That was when my periodic visits became a bi-monthly fortnight to give my sister a break, and my mother some respite-care. Looking back, that was when my life bisected and I stopped writing about half of it on my blog.
On my last visit, in early December, things had moved another notch south, so to speak. It’s hard to institute changes that might benefit everyone, when two members of the party won’t remember the new regime within five minutes. ‘Don’t try to move the bins, I’ve arranged that the Council will come in and collect them’ my sister told them. A simple way to improve life and keep them safer, but despite a reminder phone call and a note in mum’s diary – her Essential aide-memoire, my sister arrived to find them trying to haul heavy wheelie bins out of their habitual resting places, through the gate and onto the lane. It resulted – unbeknownst to anyone – in my father pulling a muscle, so when I arrived a few days later, it was to find him practically immobile, my mother beyond tired, my sister worn to a frazzle. Yet they are of that generation who rarely seek help. When, a day or two later, I rang their surgery to ask for a visit to see why my father could suddenly barely walk, the Receptionist asked uncertainly if my parents were patients of theirs, as she didn’t immediately recognise their names.
In one way, it was all a good thing, as it spurred me on to make lots of changes that we siblings have wanted, but which our parents were resisting. I took them to the neighbouring town where the three of us tried, tested and bought Dad a riser/recliner chair that deposits him onto his zimmer frame in a semi-upright position. ‘Hurrah!’ I thought. But neither he nor my mother seem to be getting the hang of the push-button mechanism, so it’s usefulness has (to date) been limited, and by the time I left Dad was often to be seen perched precariously on the up-risen seat. Definitely not something to bring me peace of mind in absentia. It would be funny if it wasn’t for real.
So now I find myself carrying them with me constantly, and it is exhausting, especially as there is nothing I can do. If I ask my mother about such things as their grasp of the chair, it might as easily elicit a ‘don’t treat me like a child’ response, as a straightforward (if depressing) ‘nothing doing’. Somehow I have to find a way of switching in and out, of distancing myself mentally and emotionally, concentrating on the things I can do for them, but ‘putting them down’ and focusing on the things I have to do for the people who need me at home. It’s very hard, and to be honest, I’m not coping very well yet.
But it was good to talk to my mother this morning, and hear her sounding bright and cheerful. Most of all I think she enjoyed reminiscing about her beloved pets of long ago.