Tomorrow, October 10th is World Mental Health Day 2020 and it is probably one of the most important ones yet. Covid-19 has had a huge impact on all of us, which is why, more than ever, we need to not only be talking about mental health, but also looking after it.
This month I would like to introduce Trevor Madden. Trevor works for Achieve together as a Forensic Support/Mental Wellbeing Advisor. Trevor has very kindly agreed to share some of his touching experiences and thoughts supporting his elderly mother and father in law.
It was the unusual fact that England has had two earthquakes recently that brought this to mind, for we had a family earthquake twice this year. Both my lovely father-in-law and then my equally lovely mother-in-law passed away. One suddenly and unexpectedly with a heart attack, and the other much more slowly. In fact, it took years.
Dementia is a cruel thing – it robs the individual of their skills, achievements, memories and communication. It also robs the family of their loved one, not once but twice. Once when the diagnosis starts to fade the person away, and the second time once they die. Grief has longevity and starts before the person dies. In the end, death may be a blessing but it still hurts.
Memory in dementia, and particularly Alzheimer’s type dementia, is often likened to a bookshelf where all your memories and experiences are. Your most recent ones on the top shelf, and each successive shelf taking the weight of memories, experiences, holidays, meals, smells and tears throughout your life.
Then think about the bookcase being shaken – books, memories falling out, to be put back in the wrong order or just lost. You move backwards in time as your books fall away, and some things are lost- in memory terms, they never happened. So, your daughter becomes, in your mind, your sister, because your daughter isn’t that old. You don’t recognise people for who they are, because the remaining ‘books’ on the shelf don’t now include them. Distressing for everyone: “I used to be older, you know, but now I’m not”, she once said.
As you wander or lurch (sometimes both) backwards in time you lose the knowledge of skills learned throughout life, but sometimes regain old ones. Ones you thought that you’d lost. For my mother in law, whistling. Not gentle tunes for her. Oh no. Instead, the sort of whistle that would summon sheepdogs, that would bring children running back to you in a department store, and one that would attract her siblings in the woods of her West Sussex childhood, some 75/80 years previously. The whistle that was a memory of her childhood, but now used in 2020 to get attention from staff in her nursing home to communicate. It worked.
As Dementia diminished her, we tried to find smaller and more narrow ways to reach in and connect with the real person still occasionally in there. The nooks, the alleyways of almost forgotten communication.
So, I tried to get her to teach me to whistle as she could. An abject failure, but one where we laughed together. Once, I even showed her a video on my phone of the Clangers. I got two fingers in return. No-one could whistle as she could.
In retrospect, I think that I was trying to learn to whistle not to communicate, not to share time and attention as I thought I was at the time. Instead, I was whistling in the emotional dark because I was scared. Scared of losing her further and scared of losing her completely. On 24th July I did, and I miss her.
OK, I think that does her justice.
Thank you so much for sharing this Trevor, I am sure it has touched so many people.
If any of you would like to share your mental health experiences on the blog, I would love to hear from you.
Stay safe and keep talking.