It’s hard work visiting my dad in his care home. Conversation is difficult for him to initiate or sustain so the onus is on us to find topics he can engage with and to keep the dialogue going without him feeling defeated by his memory loss. As he tires increasingly easily and the dementia takes further hold of his mind, the task becomes ever more challenging. At times, it’s easy to return home feeling drained and disheartened.
We try different ways of involving him but success is unpredictable. Sometimes a photo will catch and hold his attention for a short while. Other times, he struggles to recognise what or who it depicts. A few weeks ago, he enjoyed looking at pictures my husband took of birds at a local zoo and it prompted talk of birdwatching on holiday and cameras he had owned. Another time, old family photos failed to register more than a passing glance.
Last week, my younger son and I took him into the garden, where we planted up a trough with herbs together. He joined in, but only with cajoling and could not recognise plants long familiar from every garden he’s kept. But something registered because at the end he was keen to ensure the trough was placed where it could be easily seen from the conservatory.
I’ve wondered if he is better at certain times of day but been proved wrong. An hour’s visit has become the maximum he can tolerate before he needs to sleep.
The staff have encouraged us to take him out. We managed that once, with a bit of effort – a short trip to a local garden centre to choose some plants for my birthday. With no wheelchair trollies available, we had to improvise and Dad hid behind a little jungle as we balanced our purchases on his lap. For the duration of the outing he was alert and engaged even if he was exhausted by the time we returned.
On other days, I’ve struggled to get him to talk at all. Once, one of the other residents spent more time chatting with me than he did. And if I’m tired it’s even more difficult – my brain grapples to keep the conversation going against long silences. Sometimes I’ve just sat and stroked the back of his hand, words unfound.
When he was in hospital, I would often read the set Bible passages and prayers from the Methodist lectionary. It was a comforting way to end the visit. Since he’s been in the care home, he’s always refused this.
Today, as we sat in the care home conservatory, away from the noise of the television, we noticed a Gideon Bible on the windowsill. This time, when I proposed reading something from it as it was a Sunday, Dad agreed. We decided to look up the suggested reading for jobhunting as my older son, also visiting, is looking for one. That took us to the words of Philippians Ch.4 about being content in every situation because ‘I can do all this through Him who gives me strength’ (a). And I thought how apt these words were for Dad too.
Then Dad chose his favourite Psalm (23) for me to read and I chose mine (Psalm 121) for my son to read. Dad commented on the promise these each hold out to us. We named our favourite Gospel stories – Peter’s betrayal and reinstatement; the calming of the storm; the miraculous catch. Dad spoke of how frightening hearing wind and waves instantly obey Jesus must have been. I mentioned one of my favourite songs with the words:
‘Who am I,
That the voice that calmed the sea
Would call out through the rain
And calm the storm in me?’ (b)
And Dad said how that was probably an even bigger miracle than the original.
Finally, we read from Romans about God ‘working all things together for good for those that love Him’ (c) and how ‘nothing can separate from us the love of Christ’ (d). Again, Dad noted the promise of these words.
By this time, he was ready for bed so we left him in the care of the nursing staff. But we left remembering more words from the Bible, another promise, when Jesus assured his disciples that ‘where two or three gather together in my Name, there am I with them’ (e).
So we left with an echo of the preacher and Bible student Dad used to be. We left with reassurance of his faith still intact, the core untarnished by dementia. We left knowing that we didn’t leave him alone. We left under a blessing.
(a) Philippians 4.11-13
(b) ‘Who Am I?’ by Casting Crowns
(c) Romans 8.28
(d) Romans 8.38-39
(e) Matthew 18.20