Our Concentrated Selves

Early bodnatense c r
Beautiful, fragrant winter flowering  Viburnam bodnantense. The birds and flowers keep me calm


‘I suppose it was the Bank Holiday on Monday that has thrown the rubbish men out of kilter’, my father said – suddenly – in the middle of breakfast.

He isn’t exactly chatty, Papa. He never has been. In fact he rarely talks much at all, bar the odd sentence or two – often pithy and to the point- and being very deaf has not encouraged loquaciousness. His pronouncement fell into the middle of something my mother and I were discussing between ourselves. He’d obviously been thinking about it, but it caught Ma and me on the hop, and we stopped chatting and frowned at each other, perplexed. For one thing Monday wasn’t a Bank Holiday, and as far as I was aware, the bin men – far from being out of kilter – were happily collecting wherever they collect on Tuesdays. ‘I think they’ll be coming tomorrow, Papa,’ I said. ‘Wednesday,’ I added hesitantly. ‘Perhaps they got out of kilter during the Christmas holidays?’ He didn’t answer that, but just said dourly: ‘Well, we’ve done nothing to prepare for them.’

Handily, this gave me the chance to point out that no preparation was necessary, as my sister has organised that the Council come in and collect the bins. My father merely grunted, but Ma agreed that she only needs to open the gate so they can get in. Last week I caught her hauling a large boulder down the garden path, along with a hefty chunk of paving slab, to prop the gate open. A pebble would have been adequate. Not surprisingly this unnecessary exercise resulted in a pulled a muscle in her back, and she has been limping ever since. Over the tea cups, I revived the image in her mind of the two lithe young bin-men who work this route. We had watched the pair of them last week, each with three wheelie bins in tow, running backwards and forwards to the refuse truck as it wended its way slowly up the hill. Such sporty types do not need assistance.

I hope she will remember all this in the morning, although I place no reliance on it whatsoever. I will find a way of introducing the topic again as often as possible, to help lodge this new ‘file’ in Ma’s leaky brain. It is the haphazardness of memory that is so difficult to cope with, and Papa’s lapse at breakfast rather alarmed me, as his memory is, in general, far better than Ma’s. At least it was. But several times during this visit I have noticed him suddenly disappear down an invisible chute into yesteryear with no warning and no ‘connection’. It is very discombobulating. He came down for breakfast a few days ago, still in his dressing gown, and said: ‘First of all, I must get your mother’s pill. It’s the only thing that really works.’ He was, I discovered, talking about a hair and nails supplement that he faithfully gave her several times a day, but that was years ago. I tried to tell him that the pill was now one of several supplements in the daily pill boxes that live on the dining room table, but he was furious with me, and told me to ‘Get out of the way’, and to ‘Stop interfering’, and wouldn’t believe that they weren’t in the old cupboard. They haven’t been for a long time, nor has he dispensed them for a long time.  It’s all quite difficult to deal with. For him and for me.

dad ceili
My father on the beach 16 years ago with Ceili


He is a grumpy chap, Papa. I can easily picture him in a Dickens novel. He also has a dry sense of humour and is very acute and intelligent, but these days the grumpiness has rather won the upper hand. So it should have been no surprise to find that he is quite put out that I have bought him new socks, lovely soft woollen ones, to replace the old, darned, thin, rather rough, stiff and bobbly ones that he is attached to purely because they are familiar. The old ones could be twenty years old for all I know, and can’t be helping his split heels. Don’t even ask about his split heels. ‘Shall I put the heel cream on for you, Papa, or would you prefer to do it yourself?’ I ask him. ‘No, I don’t like it on at bedtime as it makes the sheets sticky.’ My own experience of heel cream is that it doesn’t affect the sheets at all, but there is no point arguing. ‘Have you remembered to put some heel cream on this morning, Papa?’ I ask. ‘No, I don’t like using it in the morning, it makes my socks sticky. I prefer to use it in the evening.’

What can you do?

early snowdrops c r
More flowers to keep me calm. Snowdrops peeping through the lavender

The physio came this morning. Papa is, of course, very polite to her, and when she asked if he had done his exercises, he gave her what could pass for a smile. It informs me (as if I didn’t know) how much the politeness is costing him and that he is only enduring her visit because the Doctor has ordered it. As I wasn’t here the first time she came, I had no idea what the exercises were, but I do know that over this last the week he hasn’t done any, it’s been hard enough getting him out for the odd walk. ‘Well,’ he said and paused. ‘Not as often as I should, I’m sure.’

I wrote them all down and we went through them again after tea. He dutifully stood, and sat, and twirled his ankle (albeit rather stiffly), but I know that if my mother were to try and get him to do them, he would give her short shrift. I fear that as time goes by, I become increasingly adept at being Matron. It’s not what he wants, but it’s what he needs. Today, despite the warning look on Ma’s face and the Horse-at-a-Gate look in Papa’s eye, I got out two extra chairs while lovely Jennie, the new Home Help was here and said brightly, ‘Why don’t we all do the the exercises, to get into the swing of them?’ Jennie immediately rowed in behind me with some gentle remark about doing exercises with lots of her clients and it all went fine, despite Papa’s sarcastic comment to the effect of: ‘I wonder how I’ve managed to get out of a chair all these years?’ I resisted the temptation to say: ‘Well, you weren’t managing last time I was here!’ It doesn’t matter, because he has forgotten how he was a month ago – a week ago. What matters is that he is so much better, that the ball is, hopefully, rolling, and that Jennie has promised to go through the exercises every time she comes.

My sister, who is probably far more patient than I am, often says ‘We must do things as their pace,’ but their pace – these days – is continental drift, and far slower than the rate of their decline. If we are to successfully manage their increasing frailty, then we need to nudge them into changes they don’t quite think they want or are ready for. Like having Jennie come in to help. Like doing exercises. Like accepting that they no longer need to hump wheelie bins in and out. Ma accepts these changes readily on the face of it, but below the surface lies the tough, admirable residue of someone who has always been stubbornly independent, so although she agrees to things, her inner nature takes over and forgetfulness does the rest. With Papa, his innate, reactive grumpiness has ever more opportunity to dominate. I suppose the sad truth is that, as we age, whilst our capabilities dim, the characteristic traits of our characters conversely become more concentrated.

Isn’t life tricky?





Author: writeovertheedge

I am a writer, a gardener, an animal-lover, the mother of two grown up sons, and the wife of an artist. We live on the west coast of Ireland, where we love the scenery and the people and hate the rain. I have another blog, Writing from the Edge, but am starting to use this blog to record a new and more difficult part of my life - helping to care for my elderly parents

6 thoughts on “Our Concentrated Selves”

  1. Yes it is. And your visit and frustrations so remind me of being with my mother in the last years of her life. Those cheeseholes in the memory and the fact of being able to do anything to restore memory, clarity of physical health.

    I think it is worse when one is visiting and lives far away, because the desire, the need, to feel one has made a difference for the better is so strong, and a comfort in the wee small hours when one is lying sleepless in one’s own bed wondering what will become of the parents.

    Some of the best advice I had about being with people with dementia, and I imagine it in part applies to anyone with memory loss, is not to ask questions, not to contradict and to make tasks real.

    Could your father wear his favourite old socks over the heel cream?

    1. Hi Isobel, thanks for passing on the advice. Yes, you do gradually learn the best way to handle things. The difficulty, as you also point out, is not being there continuously, so by the next visit, methods need to change… I have given up on the heels at the moment.

      1. I think it is an enormously difficult time. Parents want help but see us still as their children. It causes so many mixed feelings, one of my mother’s favourite put downs was ‘I have forgotten more than you’ll ever know’. It’s like walking on eggshells. Good luck!

  2. Oh goodness, how true that is. I think I am still about 12 going on 13 in their eyes. Truly. And yes, I get exactly the same put down. ‘I’ve had a lot of experience with …, you know!’ As a friend of mine so accurately puts it, I bite my tongue so often I only have a bloody stump left…

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