I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked me for tips and advice when dementia has come into their life. With more people than ever before now living with dementia, or knowing someone with dementia, it seems apt for my Dementia Awareness Week blog of 2017 to share my top five things that, with the power of hindsight, I wish I’d known before my dad developed dementia.
1) How much life changes
It may seem remarkably obvious, but dementia changes lives. It REALLY changes lives. The problem with telling people that is, until you’ve experienced it, you don’t realise just how much. Clearly dementia utterly altered the course of my dad’s life – last month he should have been celebrating his 90th birthday. Instead, the last 19 years of his life were characterised by slow cognitive decline and eventually a very marked physical decline too.
In a very different way, my life has completely changed as result of my dad’s dementia, and it will remain so for the rest of my life. Those experiences don’t leave you, even if you don’t go on to work with people who have dementia as I have. For me there are two ways of approaching this change – either embrace it, appreciating what you’ve learnt/are learning and making the most of that knowledge by sharing it for the benefit of others, or at very least, allowing yourself to be at peace with it. Or you can rail against it, trying very hard to block it out, pretending it isn’t or hasn’t happened. I’m yet to meet anyone who has successfully achieved the latter, but that isn’t to say it can’t be done. As in all things, it is a matter for the individual, but to at least have a genuine awareness of the way dementia changes lives is, for anyone affected by it, the beginning of finding the path that is right for you.
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 the life story work 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.
3) What my dad would have REALLY wanted
This is tricky, because no one likes to think about a loved one developing dementia and eventually becoming physically frail and needing a care home or hospital care, or deciding about resuscitation and end of life preferences. The problem with never having these conversations, however, is that you are completely in the dark when decisions have to be made, and where dementia is concerned, decisions do eventually have to be made.
The most I ever knew about my dad’s wishes? Dad would walk past a particular churchyard and say he wanted to be buried there. And he would very occasionally say that if he was very ill to ‘take him out the back and shoot him’.
Basically, we didn’t have a lot to base our decisions on. Yes, a deep love for and understanding of my dad, and a strong sense of doing right by him and adhering to what little we knew of his preferences (of course the law doesn’t allow for what dad actually wanted!), but beyond that technically it was guesswork.
So if you have a chance to talk about Power of Attorney (in England this is in two parts, Health and Welfare) or make advance care plans, do it. It’s difficult at the time, but even more difficult down the line.
4) How much memories matter
There is a massive focus on lost memories for a person who is living with dementia (despite the fact that dementia isn’t just about memory problems), but less focus on how those of us around the person allow memories to slip away too. All those minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years I spent with my dad during his dementia, and yet I have a comparatively tiny collection of photos, and no videos or written diaries.
Granted, I wasn’t part of the smartphone generation back then, but when I think about the amount of moments I capture as a mummy to our daughter, I hugely regret not capturing more of my dad’s special moments. And they were special, so very special, even when dad’s dementia was very advanced. There are no second chances to record those moments, and even if you never look back at them, at least you have them. I don’t have that option now, and while the memories in my head are strong and the photos I have very precious, I could have had so many more mementoes of our time together.
5) The lowdown on care homes
When you are suddenly confronted by a doctor telling you that your father won’t be discharged home from hospital but instead must move to a care home, it’s a shock. It’s even more of a shock when you’re asked to find a care home and have no idea what you are looking for.
We first encountered that challenge 14 years ago. These days there are loads of websites offering you advice, and I weighed into that debate a few years ago with this blog. Ultimately, my very top tip would be: Don’t choose a care home that looks the best, choose one that feels the best. Gut instinct is crucial. And even if you never ever plan to go into a care home yourself, or for any loved one of yours to go into a care home, it doesn’t hurt to be informed. You never know when life can throw you a curve ball, and dementia is a very curvy ball.
So, there is my ‘Top Five’. Please share them, add your own dementia-themed ‘Top Five’ in the comments, and together we can help to make this year’s Dementia Awareness Week more informative for all.