I bought a big bunch of daffodils for my mother, while I was in Suffolk. Both she and I love them, and nothing is as cheery as their yellow trumpets at this time of year. To be honest, I feel rather cheated, finding daffodils on sale and yet half the snowdrops in my own garden haven’t opened yet! What an odd year it is. Anyway, I spotted them on my trip to Ipswich, and the bunch was so big we split them into several vases for the sitting room, the dining room table and the kitchen windowsill.
Even better was hearing what the flowers sparked in my mother’s head, to see her eyes light up, and to feel her come alive with memories. She remembered her grandmother packing them into boxes to send to Plymouth and beyond. Her grandparents had a market garden, as it used to be called in those days, on the Tamar in Cornwall. There aren’t many photographs of that era, but I have one of them when they were older, Alfred and Minnie Annie Frances with an armful of daffodils, their beloved dog Rufus in the background. I don’t remember my great grandparents – they died when I was a small child, living abroad, but I hoard the snippets of information that my mother drops from time to time. They are part of what and who I am, despite never having known them.
Some years ago, visiting my soul-mate in Wiltshire, I stumbled upon a local art exhibition and was irresistibly drawn to one painting. It was of dawn rising over a field of daffodils. It took me back to a place I had never actually known. The artist was present during my visit and when she saw me looking at her picture, she came over. ‘It was in Cornwall,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t help but paint it.’
I couldn’t help but buy it.
As we sat down for lunch at my parent’s house last week, the vase of yellow daffs making our weekday meal seem special, my mother, lightly fingering the petals, started to quote a poem. Not Wordsworth’s well known, if rather hackneyed lines. It was Robert Herrick:
Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Until the hasting day
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.
A few days later, back in Ireland, tired from my UK visit and from a long day of travel, I found a pot of miniature yellow Tête á Tête on my own kitchen window sill. They are a vital part of January and February for me – I buy a pot most weeks, along with my groceries and dog food, and when they have finished blooming, I plant them in the garden: a joy for the early spring next year. But this season, being away, I haven’t yet bought any. This was a pot the In-Charge had found, struggling to life in a corner of the garden, forgotten last year no doubt when I was so busy with Bloom.
‘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.
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?
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.
We have good days and not such good days, but mostly things are going well. I am only too aware that it is up to me to make it go well, my stay here in Suffolk. On the face of it, that should be easy enough, but somehow it never is.
Yesterday was cold and wet and horrible. Rain turned to sleet – briefly to snow – then back to sleet again, and the sharp wind of the morning became a chilly gale by mid afternoon. It was Thursday, and Thursday is the one day of the week my mother ‘escapes’. My father doesn’t like going out himself, but no longer likes her going out, and sadly she has gradually given in to this over the years, so now he panics if she’s not close by. It’s probably too late to change that, but it makes me both sad and cross that my once busy mother is essentially incarcerated within her property.
However, on Thursdays their cleaner comes in the morning so while she is in the house, Ma nips down to meet her friends at a church coffee morning that she herself instituted some years ago. She only goes for half an hour or so, but then, later in the morning, she goes up the road to get her hair done – another all-too-brief half hour. Two tiny windows in her week.
‘Why don’t you go down for coffee?’ I suggested chirpily at breakfast. ‘And don’t rush back – stay and eat all the biscuits.’ My father grunted in the manner he reserves for plans he doesn’t like, but I ignored him and bundled her off. I have far more steel about me than my mother. While she was gone I unloaded the freezer to defrost it and surveyed the shed roof with their marvellous handyman who popped in specially. He will fix it asap, but while he was there I got him to fit an extra light in the kitchen. Later I cut my father’s fingernails, as he can no longer do them for himself and in the afternoon, while Papa ‘zizzed’ by the fire, Ma and I played Scrabble. I think my brother rooted the game out in the hope of exercising her brain – a clever idea. Once, she used to beat us all at Scrabble, but yesterday I had to remind her how it was played. Still, no matter, we got there.
Today we had planned to go into Ipswich on the bus. They panic at the idea of driving in to such a large town, as larger towns are complicated and involve finding somewhere to park. I drive them, of course, as they both ceased driving a few years ago, but I don’t think my father really believes women can do anything much (outside the kitchen), especially drive. The day dawned cloudless and beautiful, crisp and cold, the gales and sleet a distant memory. Over breakfast Papa announced that he wasn’t up to going into Ipswich. No surprise there, but I had a secret plan. Feigning resignation, I reluctantly agreed to let the Ipswich trip go, but suggested we compensate Ma by taking her somewhere nice for lunch instead. He was in a bit of a corner and couldn’t wriggle out, so somewhat later we set off for Framlingham. I have never been to Framlingham. Some rather hoity neighbours only every shopped in ‘Framlingham, of course’ which rather set my parents against the place. But today I chose the destination, and off we went.
Needless to say, no sooner had we set off than Papa asked me to slow down. As usual. I was doing under 30mph/50kph, and pointed out that I’d stall if we went any slower. (I often pull in to let frustrated motorists overtake.) I just have to keep reminding myself that he has forgotten I’ve been driving for well over 40 years (in Central London for 20 of those). At least, that’s what I try to think. Sometimes it helps.
Framlingham was lovely – of course! We didn’t walk around the town or the castle, we just went straight into The Crown, a coaching inn dating from around 1750, settled ourselves beside a roaring fire, admired the dog lying under the sofa next to us and ordered a slap up lunch. It was perfect, but then, what else would you expect, in Framlingham?
I’m back in Suffolk at my parents’ house again. It hardly seems any time since I was here last, just a month ago in fact. Lots of things have changed, but some are very much the same.
Happily my father is hugely better than on my last visit, when he had, almost overnight, become immobile. I’d wondered at the time if he’d had a mini stroke, but it turned out to be just a pulled muscle, and rest and painkillers have done the trick. While he isn’t gambolling like a spring lamb, he is at least more like his old self. I even managed to get him out for a walk this morning, a small but significant triumph as he no longer wants to go anywhere and on my last visit could barely cross a room.
My mother doesn’t seem quite so tired as she was, but now she is limping. It’s hard to know how bad things really are with her, as she will limp but say nothing. Then when I ask what’s wrong, she says it’s her back, or her hip. Her back is an ongoing problem. But if I urge her to rest she won’t, she rarely agrees to take painkillers, and when I ask if she has been doing the exercises the osteopath gave her, she says she hasn’t. Worse, I am here to do everything for her for ten days, but she is unable to sit back and let me get on with it it. I discuss this at length, often, with my siblings. We are all at our wits’ end because she is so difficult to help. At mealtimes, she is up and down like a yo-yo, ‘I’ll get it… I’ll do it… I’ll wash up… I’ll clear the table…’ I am fed up with saying: ‘That’s why I’m here.’ I’m fed up with trying to coax her. ‘You’ll be back on parade again next week,’ I say. I might as well talk to the wall.
‘She is frightened of losing control,’ my brother said.
My son laughed. ‘Just let her do it.’ he said. ‘She’s probably just glad to have you chat to her while she does stuff.’ Twenty years ago – ten years ago even, I’d have agreed. Now I know that, at 84 and looking after my father, she is bone tired, and her tiredness is causing endless extra worry and work for my sister who lives down the road. It seems to me that I can best help by doing as many chores as possible while I am here.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my son is right. I should let her carry on and just be here. Chatting. Brightly.
I wish I could find a half-way house between the two, and heaven knows, I try, but I’m not succeeding.
Perhaps the most tiring thing of all is her forgetfulness and the endless, meaningless repetition that forgetfulness generates and requires. She doesn’t, according to her doctor, have Alzheimers, ‘she is just old’. And tired. But she uses so much energy on mindless un-necessaries that it’s hard not to get exasperated. She doesn’t treat any of us – her children – as adults who can walk, talk and chew gum. She has just come downstairs for the fourth time since going to bed, this time to check that the fire has been turned off, even though she knows I haven’t yet retired for the night. Since 2013 I have spent nearly three months of every year in this house, but she tells me where each light switch is every night before she goes to bed. And that’s just the light switches. I don’t really know how to cope with it. If I were a decent, reasonable human being I would just say, ‘Right, thanks.’ Every night.
Why do I find that so difficult?
It’s worse than Groundhog Day. It’s like being locked into a perpetual Monopoly game where I move from ‘Return to Go’ on to ‘Return to Go’.
…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.
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.