How Ricky Gervais’s new heartfelt drama got me thinking about me, my dad and dementia
I love talking. Me and Dave – my dad – would spend hours talking to each other. It was a shared passion – amongst others – including but not limited to football, books and music.
He was never stuck for word, a true conversationalist and (although would never have told him this then) – he was a font of all knowledge – and I was the sponge. We would stay up until the wee small hours putting the world to rights – something that I still enjoy doing now.
I had an unbreakable father-daughter bond with this chatterbox – or so I thought.
But this once articulate, quick witted and charming gasbag – was now asking me for cigarette sandwiches and repeating the same song lyric over and over – and I found myself unable to cope on occasions.
Dave’s dementia progressed, he lost his speech and I was lost for words.
He would rather have given up his right arm then not be able to hold court in a conversation. And I now didn’t know how to approach a chat with my former conversational comrade.
It has been six years since he passed away following a long battle with early onset Alzheimer’s disease – and I often think about how I could have better kept our conversations going.
Last week, while watching Ricky Gervais’s new series – After Life – I found myself relating to the main protagonist in the show – Tony.
No, no, no – not the bit about wanting to hit a child over the head with a hammer at the school gates – but how he feels and reacts to his dad, who is also living with dementia.
He is finding it hard to cope with his dad – following the death of his wife – and he gets irritated with him, as he
keeps talking about his daughter-in-law as if she was still alive.
I would get annoyed with my dad too – just like Tony does – when he could not communicate how I thought he still should – now that makes me feel guilty.
Like Tony, I would sit in an armchair side-by-side my dad, both of us staring out at a wall and I would not have a word to say. Then I would batter him with questions (to break the silence) and expect an answer. I was 24 – with a baby on the way and didn’t have a clue.
While I can look back and laugh at the moments in his dementia now – like they do in After Life – at the time, I didn’t see the funny side of it. I felt shattered – physically and mentally – and my mum too.
Tony says things like – ‘What is the point – he doesn’t even know I’m here’ and “He can’t understand me’. ‘He doesn’t care what I say’. But as the nurse says in AfterLife: What if he does understand?
Along our journey together with dementia, I did bring some new tricks and tools to the table when communicating with my dad – to help me cope with being a carer, and In turn he was able to join in more – probably because I relaxed and went with the flow more – rather than thinking it needed to be the same as it always was.
Life, in that respect, became better for both of us. But don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a fairy tale, some days I still wanted to give up and I cried A LOT but other days I laughed – like when he would not share any jelly babies with my son or when got me mixed up with my mum – cue awkward conversation!
But I also have a lot of posthumous knowledge that I could have put into practice now too.
So here is what I have learnt. That it is OK not to be OK – that you can and probably will get angry and irritated at times but you can press the reset button at any time and start again.
I have also learnt – that I am probably too hard on myself.
I have learnt that I did a lot of things naturally, like non-verbal communication and giving invitations to respond like saying: ‘I love Elvis’.
I have learnt, I don’t have to have verbal diarrhea and a pocket full of questions to enjoy communicating.
I have definitely got an increased understanding of dementia, which I wish I had then, and I have learnt that it is great to have the right tools in your box when communicating
with a person with dementia – maybe just not a hammer.
The last memory I have of being with my dad is sharing a cake with him for his birthday and listening to Elvis – we didn’t ‘talk’, we smiled at each other, held hands, did a chair dance and I remarked what a lovely Victoria sponge it was.
I have thought many times about having one last pow wow with my favourite chatterer – but I now know that communicating with my dad was not all about words – and it gives me comfort. our bond was never broken – just changeable.
To learn tools that can help you communicate with a loved one living with dementia, sign up to a free Empowered Conversations workshop here.