The Dog's In The Oven

Hymn singing

Posted in Uncategorized by dogintheoven on April 14, 2010

As I started to write this entry I was in reflective mood, my mind on funerals – not death so much but eulogies and, in particular, the type of eulogy that focuses on whatever it was that eventually did for the dearly departed who happens to be in the box on burial day rather than the life that came before then. This, I always feel, is a wasted opportunity – a waste of a chance to remember a life that may well have been full of joy and love, a life brimming with excitement and adventure and a life packed with achievements. A eulogy that celebrates all that is, in my eyes at least, a memory of a life worth making and a much better sending off than simply remembering the end.

These thoughts were on my mind as my parents had just returned from a funeral of a dear friend of theirs and my father had remarked on the quality of the words spoken at the service. It had been a good life and even if the end had been painful, it was the life that had been well remembered and not the death.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the funeral also gave me a chance to spend a good hour or so talking with my mother about the service and wake at which many family and friends had gathered. The details were somewhat vague, of course, and she wasn’t quite sure who’d been there or not, but the names she did recall were all familiar to me from my childhood so I was able to ask for stories from the past, which she was delighted to supply.

One woman she mentioned, I think it was the widow, she described several times as “such a pretty girl” and the name stirred vague memories for me. One vivid childhood memory I have is being made to collect the coats of my parents’ friends as they arrived for dinner parties and to deposit these garments upstairs and out of the way. It was a job we children shared and always seemed to me quite an exciting distraction from our usual bedtime routines.

The mention of this “pretty girl” my mother now spoke of reminded me of one such evening in particular. Collecting the last of an assortment of coats one evening, I distinctly remember gazing into the alluringly beautiful face of a woman and thinking to myself that I must be in love before scampering off upstairs, tripping over my heavy burden of fur and cloth.

I think any deluded hope I had of her taking these growing feelings seriously (I was about six at the time so knew exactly what I was talking about) were cruelly dashed when my oldest sister cajoled her younger siblings into standing on the stairs to sing the song from the Sound of Music in which the Von Trapp children bid their father’s assorted guests good night ¬ in song. Of course, not only must this spectacle have made my parents and their guests squirm and cringe with embarrassment, but my sister had arranged for my brother, who was five, blonde and very small, to play the part of the little girl who fell asleep on the stairs after delivering her somewhat shaky but cute lines. I was convinced from the moment he received the ooohs and aahhs from the adults, that the object of my desire wouldn’t even have noticed my heartfelt delivery of my line “Adieu, adieu, adieu” when confronted with my brother’s performance, let alone feel the same about me as I did of her.

I told my mother this story and she repeated again how pretty this person was before hooting with laughter at the thought of all her children singing to her guests. She didn’t remember the occasion, unfortunately. What she did remember, however, were the hymns printed on the order of service they had brought home from the funeral. There were three of them and all it took was for me to read out the first line or so from each one and she’d be off, singing the words perfectly to the appropriate tune.

It’s rather a strange thing when I think about those sort of moments now for I see my mother at such times as she may well have been as a small child, perhaps at school and being asked to speak or sing in front of the class. She’s never been a particularly outgoing personality; confident in the company she chooses, but never the one desperate for attention, of wanting to be noticed all the time.

So I saw as she sang, the little girl who had learnt all the words to the song and knew the tune perfectly, but who was slightly uneasy singing it all to her classmates. Perhaps that is what Alzheimer’s Disease does to a person; takes them back to a time when real feeling was easier to read in a face – only in childhood, of course, it is because the child knows no different, while with dementia it is because the person will have forgotten how to hide true emotion.

While this glimpse into how my mother may have been as a little girl was sobering, the inability to hide emotion like this provides us all with moments of great happiness, too – and it is these moments that we must cherish.

For instance, my mother has just walked in to the kitchen where I am writing this, having returned from a day on the beach with one of my sisters, my brother and assorted grandchildren – and, of course, the dog. “He just didn’t want to come up from the beach,” she told me as the exhausted animal drank his water and collapsed in a heap, clearly happy to have the chance of a rest. My mother then looked at me and, clearly sobbing now, said: “And nor did I.”

When she is happy, she knows she is happy and, although she may not be able to express why she is happy, somehow we can tell that she is – even if it takes tears to let us know.


Dress sense

Posted in Uncategorized by dogintheoven on March 30, 2010

“Hello Dad.”


“Hi, it’s me, William. How are you?”


“Hello, it’s me. Can you hear me?”

“Hello (pause). Yes.”

“Good. How are you?”


Conversations with my father are never easy at the best of times, but on the telephone things have a habit of quickly descending into farce. My sisters don’t seem to have a problem and I am often party to their lengthy exchanges as he likes to put the phone on loudspeaker and bellow his responses to the device held in front of him rather than to his ear. But on the telephone, he and I keep things brief and to the point.

“Your mother is dressed like a clown again.”

I had only called to remind them that I wouldn’t be home that evening so they’d have to fend for themselves. It shouldn’t have been a problem as careful planning had gone into my absence – their dinner was in the fridge to be warmed in the oven and my sister was due to call round to make sure all was in order and take my mother for a G&T at the tennis club.

“Well I hope she can’t hear you say that,” I replied, trying to inject a scolding tone into my voice.

“No,” came a quiet and rather sheepish reply, immediately confirming my suspicion that she was probably standing right in front of him as he made his startlingly brutal observation. She generally follows him around when he’s on the phone, chipping in now and again as though part of the conversation.

I could now hear her in the background, telling my father that she could jolly well wear what she likes and it was nothing to do with him anyway. My father provided her with a muffled apology in response and then started to tell me what she was wearing, speaking quietly and out of the corner of his mouth presumably thinking this would be enough to spare her having to listen what he had to say on the matter.

“She’s got two skirts on and she’s tucked her jacket into her waist – and I don’t think she’s got any pants on as I found a pair in the jug in the bathroom,” he confided in me as though imparting a secret.

Of course, he wasn’t; he was painting a familiar picture and one he’s had to deal with many times – and, of course, he doesn’t mean to be cruel or insensitive.

He wants his life to be normal again, for him and his wife of 50 years to be able to enjoy their well-earned retirement together, travelling the world, playing golf, walking the dog and seeing their large family and group of friends. All as planned.

And there, standing in front of him is a constant reminder that he can’t. A strangely dressed taunt.

Holidays will be short affairs from now on, packed with stress for him about my mother getting lost, what she will wear at dinner and the dog eating the hotel furniture. Golf is already getting difficult as arrangements need to be made far in advance and he can’t spend as much time on the 19th hole as he used to. And their friends are slowly retreating into their own worlds of old age problems and away from their friend, who can no longer do the things she used to do with them.

Comments like these about her dress sense,others about her habit of putting things in rather odd places and just about every other manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease are born out of pure frustration, of wanting it all to go away, of wanting his life back. He is afraid and angry and he provides us all with a clear understanding of how this disease impacts on everyone it touches.

Despite this, we all tell him off for his insensitivity, scolding him for it and suggesting alternative words to use that say the same thing. We do this for two very good reasons. Firstly, this criticism does upset my mother. She has a very apparent impression that in his eyes she can do no right. She gets angry with him, even shouts at him and it is plain to see that despite not remembering his exact words a distressing feeling does stay with her.

Secondly, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. She won’t alter her attire for him after this type of criticism and this makes it even harder for him to suggest alternatives.

On this occasion, I told him to ignore what she had on and leave it for my sister to deal with when she came round. She would be able provide my mother with a more conventional look with the crack of a simple joke, a pull on the jacket and an offer to mend one of the skirts. Hair would then be smoothed, shoes put on the correct feet and no one at the tennis club would be any the wiser.

“Oh,” he said, more like a child than my father. “I suppose you’re right.”

Meet the dog

Posted in Uncategorized by dogintheoven on March 19, 2010

As the oven-dwelling dog seems to play an increasingly pivotal role in this story, I feel it important to provide a little background to his arrival on the scene and the part he now plays in the unfolding drama that is living with dementia.

About two years ago, when my mother’s lack of virtually all short-term memory became impossible to ignore, my sister wisely sent round her ailing and somewhat overweight old mutt to live with my parents. It was move in part designed to provide the rather disorganised couple some added focus to their life and some company and in part to divert attention away from my mother’s ever more bewildering behaviour.

And it worked. The little dog soon became part of the fixtures and fittings, quite literally, spending most of her time sitting with my mother being fed Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut in front of the fire, going from plump to fat in a matter of months.

My mother loved that little dog very much indeed and it certainly gave her enormous pleasure. It became part of their routine and a part of my mother’s life that had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s – and she sensed that. If anything worried her, a smile or piece of chocolate for the dog would normally return her to a happier place.

When the dog’s legs finally gave way due to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and an abundance of chocolate treats, my father bought a pram so she could still accompany them on their many days out that generally involved a drive, a long walk and a pub lunch.

They made a fine sight indeed; my father, dressed in his golf clothes and sporting a deer stalker and wielding a shooting stick would look like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Alan Partridge, while my mother, more often than not clad in two or three skirts and each shoe on the wrong foot would push the pram, a happy smile on her face. When not asleep, the dog would peer out from the swathes of blankets she’d been wrapped in, a slightly bewildered look on her face and not appearing to take a blind bit of notice of the world as it passed her by.

Of course, such an aged animal living such an existence was never going to last very long and, sure enough, the day came when she had to be put to sleep. It soon became clear that my mother found this departure very difficult indeed and would certainly not forget this part of her recent past. She might forget the individual moments she’d spent with the dog, what she did with her from day to day ­– but she just couldn’t forget the feeling of comfort, company and joy that was just not there when the dog had gone.

The solution, of course, was simple. My vote went for another old mutt of similar proportions who could lead a similarly sedentary lifestyle and slot neatly into my parents’ life ­- so off they toddled one Sunday, only to return with a Parsons Jack Russell puppy, possibly one of the most hyper-active animals on the planet.

But, as he tore around his new home, tearing up any stray dishcloths or towels, chewing up any shoe or slipper that happened to be in his path and leaving deposits of pee at regular intervals on the carpet, my mother would look on with a doting smile on her face or follow him as best she could from room to room. The chaos he wrought didn’t seem to bother her and she seemed happier immediately.

Of course it was a different story for my father, of whom you will learn more as this story unfolds. Already finding the disruption to his planned retirement brought about by Alzheimer’s difficult enough, the addition of such a tearaway beast into his life drove him at times to question his own sanity. He loves the dog, too, but sometimes wonders quite why they have taken on such an onerous responsibility and is often driven to distraction by his antics – a source (sometimes, at least) of great amusement to me as I look on.

Last week was a case in point. I arrived home to find them all sitting in the dark, – which is quite normal. The dog, excited by the sudden illumination as I switched on the lights, started jumping around and knocked over and smashed a pot my father rather liked. The old man jumped up from his seat, shaking with anger, red in the face and, dribbling more than usual, he attempted (replacement hip permitting) to kick the animal across the room, missing by miles. My mother sprang from her chair, dressed in a woolly hat, three skirts and a pink vest over a yellow jumper and, equally angry, she started shouting at my father not to hurt the dog, before bursting out into floods of tears and running off to her bedroom.

Scolding my father, I sent him off to the pub to calm down and give his heart at least some chance of lasting the evening, before going into the cloakroom to get my mother’s coat so she could join him. There, I slipped over on a small puddle the dog had deposited earlier. In fairness, she had attempted to mop it up with one of the skirts she was wearing at the time, but had obviously been distracted and so had given up, leaving the clothing neatly folded but rather wet on the loo seat.

Of course, being occupied with the job of mopping the floor, I was unable to take my mother for her well-earned drink so instead poured her a G&T (one of her special ones, without too much G!) and asked her to help me peel the carrots, which she loves doing. Both the G&T and the carrots seemed to take her mind off the dog for a moment and she was quickly happy again, chirping away about nothing in particular.

Things remained relatively calm and normal from then, at least until my father returned home from the pub after a few pints and promptly fell asleep in his supper, not even touching the carrots but mumbling about his pot and the ‘f***in* dog’.

I left it at that for the evening and went to bed, only to be woken soon after by my mother’s rather agitated voice. She’d come down from her own slumbers, dressed now only in her nightie and a rather fetching pair of crocodile skin high heal shoes, to berate her husband about the dog again.

I returned back to bed, this time clutching a bottle of wine, while the dog quietly chewed my father’s shoes in the corner of the room.

The Dog’s In The Oven…

Posted in Uncategorized by dogintheoven on March 4, 2010

I am living with Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t have it myself (at least, I don’t think I do) but it is part of my everyday existence at the moment and something that occupies a great deal of my mind in many different ways. I have a good job and a busy life and, if it wasn’t for a change in my own circumstances, my relationship with dementia would have been a far more long-distance and less intimate affair. But change and Alzheimer’s have entered my life and, at this stage at least, that’s not quite as bad as it may seem!

It’s my mother who has this blasted disease. She was diagnosed two years ago but there had been signs of its onset for a good while before we had the medical confirmation. We all put these signs down to her naturally rather scatty character simply getting more pronounced as the she got older. She would lose things, forget the names of people she’d seen, of places she’d visited and you’d often have the same conversation on the phone several times during one call. It was something we all recognised, but until denial was no longer an option, it was something we could all smile about, make allowances for and all get on with life very much as we’d always done.

So when the diagnosis came, it was certainly not a shock – but it did change everything.

Suddenly we had a name to explain my mother’s behaviour – and what a name it was. Alzheimer’s, one of the big ones.

Like cancer, it’s a disease everyone’s heard of and, increasingly it seems, most know someone suffering with it somewhere. We’ve all heard the many depressing stories of sufferers slowly losing all reason, all dignity and shuffling slowly and almost unconsciously along a dingy nursing home corridor towards death. We have all seen pessimistic media coverage of how more and more of us will end up on this corridor and that there is still no cure; no cure even in sight.

We all seem to know how the disease will slowly strip away who the person suffering with it actually is, slowly take away a life and leave a husk, unable to live as you or I, confined to a world of confusion, fear, sadness and no hope for anything better to come. A slow, relentless, unstoppable decline into a non-person.

At least, that’s what I used to think and, in my darker moments when reflecting on the way society views the person with Alzheimer’s disease, I still believe that’s essentially how it is. What I have learned, however, is that in walking along this corridor with someone with dementia, there are moments of great happiness, great memories, great sadness, great challenges, great moments of clarity and great moments of despair. In fact, walking down this corridor of dementia is just life and life the same as yours or mine. The only difference is that the person with you has no memory of the here and now, cannot store new information and gets confused about the every day – but that’s not all that they are; they are still there, still the same person and still deserving of the same love, care and respect as anyone else in life, whatever corridor they are on.

Dementia doesn’t have to be this depressing decline into nothingness that accompanies all our preconceived ideas of the disease. Careful management, focusing on what can be done, rather than what can’t and a great deal of patience can all help smooth the path for both sufferer and carer.

All I’ve written so far, of course, is the easy bit. As many of you reading this will already know (and most much more than me), however you reflect on the disease, living with it, managing it and being patient is all bloody, bloody tough.

In my case, however, I do the simple stuff, my sisters and my brother do the simple stuff. We cook, we clean, we tidy up; we comfort, we organise and we only secretly despair. But we have busy, rewarding lives away from dementia. We can escape.

So this story about living with Alzheimer’s disease isn’t about me. I hope to tell my mother’s story, my father’s story and reflect upon what I see from the inside and how the disease has affected the people who can’t escape and how they cope with the challenges it presents.

I hope this story won’t be a depressing one to read. In fact, I hope it will be very funny at times as I believe the laughter we can all share in coping with Alzheimer’s can do nothing but help. While we can all see the confusion, the anger and the frustration on my mother’s face every day, if she can laugh and we can laugh with her, you can see the happiness, too.

I was prompted to start recording my experience of living with Alzheimer’s one day last summer when I arrived back from work to find my mother alone in the house, pottering around the place, picking up specks of dust from the floor until she had enough in her hand to make a worthwhile deposit of dirt behind the breadbin in the kitchen.

I was surprised to find her alone as I hadn’t expected my father to be out and if he had been called out in a hurry, he would surely have left the dog for company.

I wonder where they are,” I said to my mother’s backside as she bent double in front of me to pick up yet another speck of dust and trying not to ask a question that I knew she wouldn’t be able to answer. “Oh, don’t worry about them,” came her familiar trill from somewhere near the floor. “I have no idea where dad’s gone, but the dog’s is in the oven.”

I didn’t think it worth checking, but when I went upstairs to deposit my laptop in my room and change from my suit, I found the family tortoise crawling slowly across my bed, a trail of white liquid smeared across the duvet behind it.

So I did have a little peak in the oven, just to be sure – but all was well, the dog wasn’t there – he had gone for a walk with my father.

Later that evening, when telling the story to my sister and while she was crying with laughter, I thought I should start writing this stuff down. Ironically, I figured, one day I may forget it all.