Friday, January 15, 2016

Moving Week

Monday was D Day, the day my father would be moving into a nursing home. In the morning I left home early and drove into the city to pick him up. Sue, the lovely woman who had cared for him overnight, had him dressed and ready for me, his bags packed and his flat orderly and neat.

He came along happily, with no idea where we were going, though I’d spoken about it with him several times. I told him his doctors had ordered him to rest. ‘How do they know I need it?’ he asked. ‘I haven’t seen them.’ He was right but I ignored that.

He’d barely slept the night before so he napped in the car. At the front door of the nursing home, a couple bringing along an elderly relative recognised him and he became animated as he remembered who they were. 

A nurse took us to his floor. On the way to his room we passed the activities room where a woman was playing the piano and singing and he stopped to sing along, his face lighting up. I asked him if he preferred to join in while I went to his room and he said he would. When I got back, the sing-along had finished and he was seated at a table in the dining room with a bib around his neck, eating lunch. 

It made me sad that he’d accepted this so easily. Shouldn’t he have thought it wrong, a case of mistaken identity perhaps, that he’d been shepherded to sit amongst a group of strangers with no introduction or explanation? Shouldn’t he at least have been surprised? (Though, to be honest, my dad loves meeting strangers and forging connections with them. It’s one of his favourite pastimes.)

It’s now Friday and I am surprised by how smoothly this transition has gone.

The worst experience we had was after dinner on his first day. I thought I’d get him into bed to make him feel more at home. He was tired, he said.

It began well and he allowed me to take off his shirt and put on his pyjama top. I even managed to get him sitting down and his incontinence pad and pyjama pants in position, ready to pull up. 

At that moment his brain froze and he didn’t recognise the pad.

We went back and forward for about 40 minutes while he studied the thing from all angles and kept saying it was wrong, while I told him that if he stood up I could pull his pants up and he’d see it was right. 

Normally I have endless patience for my dad but this was at the end of a long, anxious day for me. I’d got up early to drive him. I’d spent the day adjusting to the strange sights, sounds and smells of a dementia floor, and hovering over him while I watched for any sign of discomfort. Now I was drained. 

I went looking for a member of staff to help me and then I left. At that point he was naked from the waist down, unbuttoning his pyjama top, but two nurses were there to take over from me.

I drove home sobbing, more from exhaustion than anything else, and slept only fitfully.

The next morning my dad greeted me as he always does, with love and tenderness. He had had breakfast, been showered, shaved and dressed, his leg wounds bandaged, his support stockings pulled up, and he was ready to face the day with the same beautiful, kind, optimistic spirit that has stood him in good stead for the last 97 ½ years.

During the day he participated eagerly in the exercise class, he sang along at the concert. At lunch he slid his foil-wrapped pat of butter across to his neighbour. ‘You have that,’ he told him. It was all he had but he was eager to share it. As we walked around several of the nurses stopped me to tell me they recognised Dad from when they worked at the nursing home where my mother spent her last year. ‘What a wonderful man,’ they said. ‘What a devoted husband.’

Right now as I write this I miss my dad so much. I want to ring him and tell him all about these things. At the same time I feel like I can breathe properly for the first time in many months.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Baggage We Pack, Baggage We Carry

I bring up Dad’s small case from the garage, a piece of carry-on luggage, still with its Qantas tag attached.

In their day my parents crisscrossed the globe for business and pleasure. They made friends all over the world. In the 80s Dad was a director of Qantas. One year he and Mum flew on behalf of Qantas to the Boeing factory in Seattle to pick up a new 747-400 plane, ‘The City of Perth’.

Now the case is dusty with disuse. I bang it until the dust rises in a cloud. I pack into it a few pairs of trousers, some shirts and singlets, socks and toiletries. His needs are few these days. My heart aches looking at this case. This is no glamorous trip I’m preparing him for. Next Monday my dad will be checking into a nursing home for a few weeks’ respite. If it’s a success he might stay on.

In one of my dad’s notebooks there is a list of the clothes he used to pack for his overseas trips, all written in his distinctive handwriting with columns alongside for ticks as each item was added to the case. Now he has no idea how to pack or what to take.

The day I made the call to book Dad into the nursing home, I woke in the middle of the night, thinking about my Auntie Helen. When Helen was 20 and her younger brother Harry 18, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and their parents, my grandparents, made her take him to Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital to be committed.

Although Harry’s behaviour was unpredictable and frightening and he needed treatment, and it was her parents’ decision not hers, Helen bore the guilt of her brother’s long incarceration for the rest of her life.

My uncle was given the treatment of the day – insulin coma therapy, where large doses of insulin were administered to induce a coma. My chest tightens when I read in the notes that he was very apprehensive about his treatment but his symptoms did abate. He was released but then the symptoms returned and he lived in institutions for the rest of his life. I remember him as a shambling wreck of a man, disheveled, incoherent and toothless.

Whenever I read of abuse and mistreatment in institutions I think of my uncle and wonder what he put up with. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why I am inundated with thoughts of Harry right now.

I decided to try a temporary placement for my dad in a nursing home because I felt he was becoming a prisoner in his own home. Because of his frailty, incontinence and confusion it’s become difficult to take him out of the house. In fact his only outings now are when I take him to the doctor. He does have the occasional visitor, but mostly he sits alone with his carers. Well-fed and well-cared for, but socially isolated. My hope is that a nursing home will provide activities and company.

I’ll be watching carefully. This is a light airy place, not the closed institution my uncle endured, but still I’m worried about this transition. I hope I’m making the right decision, and that it doesn’t worsen his condition. Time will tell, I guess. Meanwhile, I pack his suitcase with an aching heart.