In 2012 I took my mum and dad to Lake Como. I didn’t know it then but it would be the last time I would get to take my dad out of the country. We’d been fortunate enough to share many amazing holidays over the years but now he could only walk a few yards and his health was failing. One day we travelled over the other side of the lake and drove through the mountains into Switzerland for lunch. I recall teasing my dad about the ‘special’ clinics they had over there and if he didn’t behave himself there’d be one less passenger in the car on the way back to Italy. That sounds cruel now but he laughed – he laughed at all my daft jokes and I always was ready to return the favour.
Five years on, when my dad was finally released from hospital and taken into specialist nursing care, we filled his walls with photographs and one frame was filled with pictures from Lake Como. By this time his vascular dementia had taken a menacing hold on his life and on mine too. Sometimes he he would ring me distressed not able to remember much at all and sometimes I would catch glimpses of my dad that I would cherish. Towards the end, when I was praying that his end would be a peaceful one and not too far away, I would catch a glimpse of the photos from Como and try to remember anything except that ‘stupid’ remark.
This week is Dementia Awareness week. That story about my dad is uncomfortable for me to tell but most of you will have been affected by dementia in some way already. Some of you in the Blackley churches have allowed me to share your experience too. Uncomfortable or not, it is important we talk about it.
If reports are true, it will be the 21st centuries biggest killer. It is the illness or condition the majority of us fear the most and it is not difficult to understand why. I have watched what happens to families as dementia takes a hold of someone and now I have experienced it in my own family. People who were once friends and lovers soon become carers and patients. As memories fade and confusion take a hold identities change and it becomes incredibly hard to remember what things used to be like – we watch as the person we love seems to disappear before our very eyes.
Recently, I read an article by Professor Peter Keven (Staffordshire University) who had done some research and written from a Christian perspective on the subject. He had some interesting things to say about dementia and how we might be able to look at things a bit differently through the eyes of faith. I am really grateful to him fir that short piece.
He reflected on our modern desire for independence. The philosophy of, “I think, therefore I am” pre-dates post modernism by centuries but it links the ability to reason with identity in a way that could prove be unhelpful. It does, however, seem like an appropriate slogan for our times. Productivity and purpose are God-given instincts (see instructions to Adam in Genesis 2) but away from God and out of check they leave us in a difficult place when production is impossible and when purpose is apparently lost. The amount we contribute to the world personally and professionally is obviously important but nothing will ever improve how we are viewed as a beloved children of God – something I need to remind myself of when I look at my busy calendar. I have a strange fascination with newspaper obituaries – is that an age thing? I have not seen ‘beloved child of God’ listed as as a title in an obituary and yet surely it is the highest status – I want to say ‘one could achieve’ but it is only ours by grace.
The desire to hold on to life and health and independence is understandable but when a person’s whole value is tied up in these things we might just have started to create idols out of our very selves and in doing so distorted our true and lasting identity – one bearing God’s image.
I remember the day the doctors told me they needed to put a ‘deprivation of liberty’ order in place for my dad so that they could put an alarm on his seat. He could no longer make sensible decisions about his ability to walk and was a danger to himself. I suppose he’d got to the point where he could no longer reason, he’d produced very little for years and was completely dependent. Yet, right to the very last moments of his life, he managed to bless me with reminders of his dry sense of humour, a silly grin, a line from a song or a familiar phrase. The professor of the article who inspired me to write for you on this subject called these things ‘habits of the heart’.
I wish that I could rewind and erase from history that daft joke about the Swiss clinic but what is so much more important is that the smiling old fella dressed in an M&S white vest in the photo taken on the balcony in Como is the same one I laughed and continued to love and admire in the Withington nursing home. The smile (and the M&S vest actually) were the habits of his heart which I will treasure for as long as I am blessed with the power to remember.