I’ve spent this week in Neral at Dignity Lifestyle, where my mum is cared for by dedicated nurses and carers. A while ago, I was concerned because the residents didn’t seem to do very much except sit in one of the day rooms or in their own rooms watching TV. Of course, for some residents with dementia this is how they do enjoy spending their days.
My mum in particular has always been a telly addict and the television has taken precedence over everything. My teenage piano practice always competed with the 6 O’clock News and Nationwide. More recently, when I was completing the paperwork to take her to India, she had a chest infection and a urinary infection and this had made her more confused that usual. I was taking food for her, which I’d heat up and she’d refuse to eat, telling me that she’d eat it later. Of course she never did, though she swore she had.
The situation came to a head one day when her GP and the local Mental Health Social Work team finally called for her to be admitted to hospital. I arrived in a rush from the park where, whilst walking the dogs, I’d been speaking frantically to a GP who refused to listen but yelled at me instead and a more conciliatory social worker who told me that she was calling an ambulance. I stepped into her disgracefully untidy flat – my mum had become rather reclusive – where there were two paramedics; the house manager; the GP all standing around arguing about their next move. In the midst of this chaos sat my mum, gazing at the blaring TV, completely oblivious to the fuss around her.
Anyway, I digress, as Sir Ronnie Corbett would have said.
On my trip to Neral in September I met Rekha, the resident gerontologist, who had been engaged to organise and provide stimulating activities for the old folks. I watched her doing some singing and art therapy, and chatting to the residents. This week, she told me that she had taken the residents on a picnic in the grounds of the resort and that she’d arranged for some trainee elder care workers to come and sing with the residents in the substantial and underused club house. My mum even walked down to the club house, with some help, and the Dignity Fleet of golf buggies took them back up the hill to their home in the Nightingale block. The gallery above shows the residents enjoying the singing and even taking the mike and organising themselves a bit.
My mum seemed a lot more engaged than she’s been and I think she might even have recognised me once or twice. She certainly seemed very happy and smiley. Rekha showed me some video footage of her engaging with the nurses that all looked very jolly, and they have put pictures and motivational posters on the walls of the Nightingale Block that have cheered the place up and made it look purposeful and bright, despite the occasionally peeling paint.
Rekha took some pictures of me and my mum together and she was trying to engineer a posed picture of me giving my mum a cuddle. This would never normally have happened, because my mum has always been extremely uncomfortable with physical affection and intimacy. I can’t remember ever having been kissed or cuddled by my parents and this has stunted my demonstrativeness. I’m a bit better with my own children, but nowhere near as physically close as perhaps I might have been. It all seemed very false to me and I refused to pose giving my mum a kiss, knowing that it would make her feel uncomfortable too. It made me think of those times when, as a child, my parents would call me and force me to talk to relatives in India whom I hardly knew. What could I say in those situations, knowing full well that they’d make some comment about my non-standard Marathi or the fact that I’d revert to English? I used to go and hide. I still remember, “Marathi is your mother tongue!” Indian culture can be very directive, let’s just leave it at that. Anyway, Rekha now has the impression that I’m shy of posing for photos. She’s right really, I hate photos of me, and I’ll only take a selfie if it’s for a profile picture. If she sends my the photos on WhatsApp, I’ll post them here and you’ll be able to see how self-conscious I am.
HOWEVER the upshot of all of this increased mental stimulation is that I have noticed an improvement in my mum. It’s marginal and she still has Alzheimer’s-related dementia, of course, so it’s not that she’s on the way to being miraculously cured, but surely being more engaged is a good thing. The best thing, however, was that on my final afternoon as I was sitting in mum’s room watching a Marathi soap opera with her, my mum actually took my hand in hers, held it and smiled a warm smile at me, a connection she hasn’t made for maybe 45 years.