DOUGLAS MITCHELL was an only child, his father's treasure - or “treash” for short - much loved and nurtured. Here he remembers his distressing decline and poignant death.
I always say my father died several years before his physical death. That bald statement hides years of travail and misery. For the last two years he didn’t recognise me, and lived permanently incarcerated in care homes.
He escaped twice, once getting all the way from Edinburgh to Glasgow, without any money, heavily sedated and with only a letter from me in his pocket to guide him.
He ended up in the arms of a British Transport police sergeant, who was sympathetic and rang me to collect him. I kept him for one night and found another place for him.
The real problem was that he was violent and aggressive as well as suffering from dementia. As a result, he drove away all those around him who were trying to help. My mother was a nervous wreck, even as we had 24-hour nursing care and locked rooms to keep him in.
‘The fight went out out of him’
Eventually, he was admitted to a special unit in Blackburn, for confused and elderly patients, which had just been established. There were security doors and large bruisers in white white T-shirts, there to make sure no-one escaped. There were only twelve in the unit, a mixture of men and women.
They all had individual foibles. One lady had been a telephonist, and they gave her a toy phone to answer hundreds of times a day. Another had been a seamstress who picked up imaginary threads, rolled them in her hands into a non-existent ball, and then put them in an invisible ashtray. A man who had been a soldier used to shout “Attention!” several times a day, scaring sane people, ignored by the other inmates.
My father used to get up from his seat, do a little jig, and sit down again. I never found out why. After about four months at Blackburn, the fight suddenly went out of him.
I used to describe him as having “dive downs” when, after a period of stability, he would suddenly get worse, and have even less recall afterwards.
He had just had such a “dive down” and then seemed to shrink. By this time he had virtually no memory of anything. We were able to get him into a small home near my mother, where the staff were able to monitor him on CCTV. He was virtually catatonic, unable to recognise those about him, nor his family. We had kept his grandchildren away for over two years.
One day, as I was going to visit him, the staff nurse asked if I could try to cut his fingernails. “He won’t let anyone touch his hands,” she said. “It’s very strange.”
She gave me a pair of nail scissors and I went into his room. He was sitting on the bed staring at the wall, shrunken, spectral. I greeted him as I always had: “Hello Dad”. He stared at me blankly.
I burbled on about nothing and then said,” Is that the length of your nails? Is no-one looking after you?” I took his hand and showed it to him. He looked at it, deadpan. I took the scissors and quickly cut the nails on one hand, then the other.
“There, that’s much better.”
I stayed another half hour, sitting on the bed beside him, speaking of this and that, none of which elicited any response. Before I rose to go, I gave him a hug, and said “Bye Dad”.
As I stood up, he lay back on the bed, turning away from me. “Bye bye treash, God bless.”
The next time I saw him he was in his coffin.
Alzheimer’s Birthday Party
He sat in his armchair looking much the same
As before he was ever ill. But when she came
Towards him and held out her hand
He turned away; he didn’t understand.
Distant, vague, empty of thought, his eyes
Like clear, cloudless, windswept morning skies,
Then, suddenly, a slow and gentle smile
Which in the past used often to beguile
Her heart, together with his smiling eyes, seagreen.
These were the sum of all he’d ever been.
She fetched the birthday cake, gave him his toy;
They said his mental age was five, so he’d enjoy
His car, with the engine, doors and boot all opening and friction wheels,
She lit the candles, cut the cake, poured the tea. He feels
All this is vaguely familiar, the people kind,
And so she loves him and his poor, bewildered mind.