Its Happy Fathers Day! A day to celebrate these wonderful men who do their best to bring up the next generation. And it doesn’t matter whether they are still here in this life – or if they have passed on. Because being a Father is about family relationships; its about the influence that men have on their children and grandchildren – and that is something that endures long after a Father’s lifetime.
So while some of us are spending the day with our Dads, others might be raising a glass in his memory. They both count.
It sounds harsh – but I will be doing both. Because my Dad is a bit in between. He is ‘here’ but he isn’t. He is still my Dad – but not as I remember him.
My Dad has been stolen by Dementia. And he is not alone. In the UK there are probably over 300,000 men who are suffering with this heart-breaking condition. They may not recognise their own children on Fathers Day; they may need us to put the home made cake into their mouth; to hold a straw for them to wash down the wee whisky toast.
It would be easy to get depressed – and I often do get anxious about seeing my Dad disappear – but there is another side to it all. A surprisingly positive slant which, for me, means that Fathers Day is probably more meaningful than it has ever been! And here it is.
My dad was a man of his time. By that I mean that he raised his daughters the same way a labrador might raise its pups. In other words his priorities were based on making sure that we were warm, fed and out of harms way. All the other crazy stuff that comes with bringing up a family was firmly left to Mum!
The result of this traditional upbringing was that I was always much closer to my Mum. I loved my Dad but we had little in common and we did not seek each other’s company in any real sense. I sometimes felt a bit sad and guilty that we weren’t closer but it wasn’t really an issue – that’s just the way it was.
Our relationship changed dramatically when Dad developed dementia. I always thought that this condition brought about a slow decline but, for Dad, it came on very suddenly – literally overnight.
When I saw him on the Monday he was in Marks and Spencer, buying something for his dinner and chatting to the checkout girl about what he had been up to.
When I saw him on the Tuesday he was secured to a hospital bed, trying to ‘catch a rabbit’ and rambling the most bizarre nonsense. I was beyond shocked. There was a moment of relief when he responded positively about whether he wanted a sandwich – but it quickly passed when I watched him trying to eat it through the plastic casing.
Two years later, I still remember that Monday as clearly as the Tuesday. On Monday he was his normal self; on Tuesday he wasn’t. And he was never the same again.
After three weeks he had improved enough to be discharged from hospital but he was no longer capable of independent living. We refused a care home place and opted for a care package to be put into place in his sheltered accommodation. That required me to become part of his daily routine. The very thought of it filled me with dread. I didn’t know how on earth I could fit this in to my already manic days – and I didn’t know how to be the daughter that my Dad now needed.
But life is full of surprises and, since then, Dad and I have never been closer. Its not just the daily company and familiarity that does it – its what we do with our time together. We get out and about and try to keep things normal. We look at old papers and pictures. He can’t remember what he had for his lunch but he knows who everyone is in a photograph from 1953. And now I know them too.
His inhibitions about what to talk about are lessened so when we unearth some old love letters I realise that my Dad had quite a few girlfriends before meeting my Mum. I never knew! There’s lots of things I never knew about my Dad – until now!
And a lot of my emotional boundaries have gone too.
I always said that I would not be able to deal with any of Dad’s ‘toilet’ accidents but what do you do when it becomes apparent that there has indeed been an ‘incident’. Simple! You get him in the shower and scrub him down before putting all his clothes in the laundry.
I always said that I did not ever want to see any of my Dad’s ‘bits’ but what do you do when you find him buck naked in the hallway at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon? Simple! You get him dressed. You let him lean on your shoulder while you get his pants over his feet and you try not to think about the fact that his willie is only inches away.
And what about all the animals and people that Dad thinks are in his flat. Do you deny that they are there? You may not be able to see the tramp on his sofa, the fish on the floor or the women in his bed (he wishes!). But he can. There’s babies in the cutlery drawer, a horse in the bathroom and his dead Mother in the porch.
Unless they are troubling him (in which case I gently persuade Dad that they have left), I just see them too. I see the world from where he is; I sit with him amidst all the crazy things that seem so real to him. And he likes that!
When your Dad can’t do his own shopping you do it for him. When his dementia robs him of his mobility you get him into a wheelchair and keep up the routine. When he tries to get ready for his work you have a wee joke with him about how he retired 15 years ago.
And when he cries in front of you for the first time ever – you cry too. Because, at that moment, you know he’s not confused; it’s worse than that. He’s having a moment of realisation; he knows that something is horribly wrong with his world. And he is terrified; he needs you to stay close to him and be in this strange world with him. He needs you to comfort him and and make him smile again.
My Dad’s dementia has been as much of a journey for me as it has for him. And it has made me a better person. I have found a level of patience, tolerance and optimism that I never knew I had. I have had to slow down to my Dad’s speed but, instead of making me stressed, it has actually made me calmer. I hope I have always been a kind person but caring for Dad has filled me with compassion and the overspill goes out to everyone in my life.
Dad has now gone into care but this has not lessened the time or love I give him. Today, my Sister will come over from her home two hours away. We will bundle Dad into his wheelchair and rattle him over a mile of potholed pavements and into the town. We will sit in the centre and have an ice cream. We will watch the world go by and, yet again, I will feel grateful that I have this incredible, albeit belated closeness with my Dad.
You may think that Dementia has stolen your Dad – but has it really? Maybe it’s given him back to you.
Happy Fathers Day!