For anyone who has been through the rounds of dementia or alzheimer’s with a parent the poem by Louise Cole below will strike a chord.
The internet is full of warm cuddly fluff such as “Do Not Ask Me To Remember” by Owen Darnell. That may help us feel all compassionate for five minutes, until you get a bang on your arm from your mammy’s crutch.
There are moments of comedy and pathos in those visits but they are few and far between. For the most part you are faced with a parent who is a shadow of the person they used to be. This is all the more cruel because parents are larger in our lives than other mere mortal adults.
You see them deteriorate both physically and mentally. The first day you realise they don’t know who you are is a hard one. My mother was a brilliant actress so she fooled many of the family for years that she knew who they were, but the signs are there if you really want to see them. Imagine the confusion if you woke up and recognised nobody in your life? However hard it is for you it is ten times harder on them.
If they remember your kids they remember how they were ten years ago as 7 year olds. This hulking great 17 year old teenager is a total stranger, and very scary.
You see the weight fall off them until they look like skeletons covered in parchment. They look small and frail and weak, and we want our parents to loom large and strong for us, to be the foundations for our lives, pillars of strength and wisdom.
The days when you arrive at a nursing home to find your mother sitting in her own shit, because the “cleaning crew” have not gotten around yet, those are hard days. Because today you know you are here, but tomorrow you will be in work when she is sitting in her shit and piss.
Dress your parents well, in good clothes. Buy new clothes. Make sure their hair is styled, the men are shaved regularly, their fingernails are manicured. This may seem a pointless extravagance if they spend all their day in a nursing home. But know this; well dressed people are treated better than dirty, unkempt or untidy people. People speak to them more politely, treat them with more respect, and are more likely to shake their hand, give them a hug or do them a small favour. All those little moments add up.
People who care for the old are heroes. Anyone can care for babies because they are so cute. But changing the nappy on a crabby old man who is trying to bash you on the head, that takes the soul of an angel. Go out of your way to honour the staff who care for your parents, they deserve every ounce of your respect.
As an aside: the phrase “Fur Coat and No Knickers” is a common Irish phrase used to describe people who are all flash with no substance. The kind of person who spends money on a fancy car in the driveway to impress the neighbours, instead of fixing the heating boiler and buying new shoes for the children.
Fur Coat and No Knickers; by Louise G. Cole
Drawing breath between tales of dead
little brothers and elderly neighbours
moved away, my mother looks inside
a lifetime that’s 92 and counting,
claims no-one’s visited for months,
thinks I’m her cousin Betty
with designs on her fur coat and hopes
of borrowing a fiver.
I try not to mind the care home smell
and wonder what else to talk about when
the devil himself taps my shoulder
suggests I unburden, reveal secrets
never before shared, so I offer a revelation:
I lost my virginity four times
before I was married. She’s never yet listened to me
so it is no surprise she doesn’t hear,
continues with a rattle about imagined walks
in the park yesterday, shopping
trips she’ll make next week.
A carer comes to tuck her in,
brings weak tea and egg sandwiches,
asks if I’d like some,
is relieved when I decline.
I get up to leave and the frail old cripple
who used to be my mother
spills her tea and demands
to know when cousin Betty intends returning
the fur coat, says quietly: ‘I always knew
what a little whore you were’.