Last year I wrote a popular blog post entitled ‘Five things I wish I’d known before my dad’s dementia’. Point two was entitled ‘What to do for the best’ and said:
“The great problem when my dad was living with dementia is that I wasn’t a researcher, or an observer of all things ‘dementia’. I never Googled what other people’s dad’s who were living with dementia really enjoyed. Nor did I attend dementia groups, access social media extensively, or read dementia books or blogs (so the fact that you are reading this means you are one step ahead of where I was!).
I learnt what worked for my dad eventually but it was often through trial and error, and when I think back so much time was wasted. For example, I would never have persevered with ensuring my dad had TV in his room: in hindsight I would have scrapped the TV on day one and replaced it with the CD player and music collection that brought infinitely more joy to his life. I’d have made the environmental changes that personalised dad’s room much quicker, and staff asked for my help with and I took ages to dig out photos and make the memory box, I’d have done that quicker too.
We’d buy things, like CD’s, for birthdays and Christmases thinking it was nice to space out the gifts. Big mistake. Dementia is terminal, you are ‘on the clock’ as it were. Get as many lovely things as you can afford and enjoy every single one of them as soon as possible so you have them for as long as possible. My dad was never into big birthday or Christmas celebrations, and looking back maybe he was onto something with that.”
I often receive emails from family members outlining their situation and asking me what to do for ‘the best’, and my ‘Five things I wish I’d known before my dad’s dementia’ post prompted a few more of those emails, so here are my thoughts on what to do for ‘the best’:
Don’t beat yourself up
Wanting to know what to do for ‘the best’ is a really common feeling that most of us have in relation to a variety of situations. A natural human instinct is to want to avoid getting things ‘wrong’, but when I was growing up my parents always said: “He who never made a mistake never made anything.” There is no such thing as the perfect way to support a loved one with dementia, so don’t beat yourself up.
‘The best’ in your situation is unique to your situation
Whenever anyone asks me what is for ‘the best’ in relation to their loved one with dementia my opening suggestion is always to remember that ‘the best’ in your situation will be unique to your situation. My best, your best and everyone else’s best is entirely individual to them. This phrase really underpins that: “When you’ve met one person with dementia, you’ve met one person with dementia.” Ultimately, there is no definitive rule book on what the best care and support looks like – I was guided more by instinct than knowledge, and sometimes that’s no bad thing.
Sometimes a desire to do our ‘best’ can lead to our worst
Reading the accounts of people living with dementia in the last few years has made me realise that as care partners we can unintentionally become very caught up in the desire to do our ‘best’, sometimes stifling the person with dementia, disabling or disempowering them, which is far from ‘the best’ for anyone but hard to recognise when we are living in the moment. I’ve only really learnt this lesson as a result of following the work of empowerment groups like DEEP and DAI, realising the ‘I’m doing this for the best’ trap is easy to fall into and one I fell into myself with my dad sometimes.
As Wendy Mitchell says in her book, ‘Somebody I used to know’:
“They were one of those typical couples, the ones where the wife takes the lead; she takes his coat from his arms, she folds it over, sits him down, checks on him – once, twice – then goes off to fetch a cup of tea. I see it a lot, wherever I go. I know they’re only trying to help, so why does it always look to me as if these husbands – or wives – are so much more advanced in their disease than me, someone who has no one to fetch and carry for me, to finish my sentences, to decide that I can’t even manage the small chores that are still very much physically and mentally possible.”
Being the best YOU can be is enough
I was by my own admission far from perfect in supporting my dad, but I was the best I could be, and I’ve realised since dad’s death that you can be no more than that. When dad was alive the decisions came thick and fast, from small things to big things and everything in-between. I would constantly wonder, “Is this for the best?” about everything from signing a consent form to deliberating about medication, or taking the ‘risk’ of supporting dad to eat when healthcare professionals questioned if he could cope with anything orally due to his dysphagia. Comparing yourself to others, as I’ve known some relatives to do, will only lead to feelings of failure, or the opposite – an exalted view of how great you are at supporting your loved one. Neither is helpful. This quote sums it up perfectly:
Coping with the feeling you haven’t done your ‘best’
Sometimes I run information and knowledge session for the relatives of people who are supported by care providers. These often involve a lot of sharing of our individual stories, and sometimes become understandably very emotional for all of us. One of the biggest contributors to not feeling you are doing or have done ‘the best’ for your loved one is when professional care and support is needed. My view: asking for help doesn’t mean you’re a failure. We desperately need to move away from the rhetoric that being a family carer means doing everything for your loved one, alone, for the rest of their life, no matter what. Doing your ‘best’ should never be a byword for burning yourself out.
Until next time…