In dementia diaries, maybe.
My Step-mother-in-law died yesterday, in the care home. Her daughter and family were there. I spoke to her before they arrived, in the morning at the usual time, as if it were any other day. It was obvious that her breathing was a great difficulty. Her daughter had emailed me to say that the home had withdrawn all medication except painkillers, her daughter’s husband rang at five to say his mother-in-law had died.
I had a feeling there was more. In the evening a care worker, who did not have good English, phoned to say the funeral directors were there with a casket but there didn’t seem to be paperwork and I was the only relative they could get hold of to give permission for the body to be taken. Of course I gave permission, even though I had no idea who the funeral directors were and the care worker could not find a name or address, what are you going to do with an eighty seven year old dead body, if you are not a funeral director?
I rang the care home the following morning and heard in detail from the secretary, who I have been talking to nearly every week day for two and a half years, the trouble she and the laundry supervisor had gone to to lay my step-mother-in-law out nicely. I thanked her and asked that all the clothes I had sent be distributed to other residents, preferably those who had no relatives or had been abandoned.
There were further emails today from the daughter, who registering her mother’s death, was unsure of the spelling of my father-in-law’s middle name. I don’t have a mobile phone, so it was an hour later that I received the reiterated request, but by then it had been sorted out.
I have found that round any death there is a panic. It’s a mixture of sudden grief and the overwhelming responsibility to do all the formal necessities correctly, that make it tricky to think logically and clearly.
I recall when registering my father’s death the sudden feeling that I was immediately going to faint. I’ve never been a fainter but the feeling was irresistible. I resisted it by putting my head between my knees until the feeling went away.
Shock can cause sudden drops in blood pressure, sweating, coldness and palpitations, which are not imaginings but actual physical symptoms. Even when a death has been expected for years, even when the person has been a burden, desperately ill, raving or obviously fading, the cessation of life can be a terrible shock. Illogically, no one expects their parent to die because the parent has been there ever since memory began.
Every day since the start of the pandemic I have phoned my step-mother-in-law. I did it because the pandemic snatched her life from her, long before she got the dementia diagnosis. I believe the pandemic contributed vastly to the dementia.
My actual mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in her early fifties, her illness was a terrible time for my father-in-law. He met my step-mother-in-law shortly after his wife’s death. SMIL was a decade younger and had just had a horrible divorce. Each found in the other a much happier way of life.
After my father-in-law died SMIL deliberately and very carefully built a life for herself. She was a busy person; she had something going on every day of the week and church on Sundays. I could never get her on the phone, or if I did she was just going out or had just come back. Once she had adapted to the loss of her husband she was her bright and happy self. One of the societies she belonged to had a member who really got her goat, she put a lot of energy into outsmarting her. The Church acquired a new vicar who was very nice, I heard all about him. SMIL’s grandchildren were growing, I heard all about them. She had a good neighbour, who drove her to the shops. For the occasions when she walked, I bought her a shopping trolley which could be sat upon as a seat if the way home seemed long. SMIL made things, we had enjoyed dolls’ house miniatures together, she had completed two houses and was a skilled knitter in miniature.
Then along came the lockdown for Covid and all the carefully constructed busy social life was snatched away in the blink of an eye, because SMIL, already in her eighties, was in the high risk group. She had family in the same town, her son did her shopping and came round a couple of times a week for dinner, bringing his daughter with him.
Whenever I rang and he answered the phone, he always said they were just sitting quietly. Then the lockdown got to him, after Christmas he committed suicide. By then his daughter was a student. When SMIL got the diagnosis she was utterly isolated.
So although my step-mother-in-law developed dementia, I think she was really a victim of Covid. When the pandemic caused her world to crash she sat, alone. Briefly she was interested in the home carers her daughter organised and, when they were allowed again, her neighbours visited.
She has requested that the funeral be back in her home town, not in the village several counties away where her care home has been.
The OH and I will not be going, although relatives of the OH in the town may do so, I don’t think there’s anyone left from my side who knew SMIL. It’s a long way to drive in November, the OH’s gouty feet are not up to a two way four hour drive and I don’t think being told how badly I’m driving for eight hours would do me much good.
Funerals are for the living. The dead are not there, they are in a happier place. I hope my step-mother-in-law is in a happier place, she could not have been much more miserable for the last three years. She fought back in the care home where she lost everything, including the speech to complain or say thank you. Before that she had lost a husband, a son and the freedom to live her life the way she wanted.
If the care of a demented person falls to you, try your best to keep them in familiar surroundings as long as you can. Try to keep them as busy and active in a non-confusing way as you can. Guard your own health so you can be there for them. If all else fails you could copy me and stay in touch, when your person is taken into care. All it takes is a chat every day, a card and a bit of chocolate once or twice a week.
Suddenly I have an extra hour every day.