When our mum got dementia, my sister Kathy lived in the same town in South Africa, I lived about 50 km away, and our brothers Bill and John lived in Nepal and the UK respectively. In our globalised world, far-flung families are commonplace.
In the early stages of dementia, Mum continued travelling to the UK to visit John and her sister. But after a few years, it became clear that international travel was just too confusing for her.
It’s easy to focus on the losses that dementia brings … of independence, adventure, and connection with the extended family. But looking back, Mum’s growing dependence and vulnerability also created new opportunities.
The greatest blessing resulting from Mum’s inability to travel was an annual visit from Bill and John. Mum was a magnet who drew her children to herself, and we all benefited from the opportunity to get together far more regularly than we would otherwise have done.
A parent’s vulnerability gives members of the family the opportunity to offer a bouquet of care made up of their individual – and often complementary – gifts, abilities and resources. The person who lives closest may be most involved in day-to-day practical support; while one who lives overseas may be able to contribute more financially, and give more concentrated time and attention when they do visit.
I remember two things that my brothers did to remind Mum of their love while they were away. When Bill visited from Nepal, he would bring an album of annotated photographs to share with Mum, and leave it with her so that Kathy and I could reminisce with her. John established a standing order with the local florist, who delivered a bunch of mixed flowers every fortnight with a cheerful message from John on the card. Mum was always delighted when the new flowers arrived!
Four years before Mum passed away, she moved to a specialised dementia care home called Livewell. The flexibility and responsiveness of the staff enhanced the whole family’s experience of Mum’s last years. We truly felt ‘at home’, being able to gather as a family at the home to share meals or celebrate special days.
The home embraced communications technology, providing opportunities for Mum to communicate with Bill and John via Skype. They also communicated regularly with the whole family by email, keeping us all informed and involved, even at a distance.
One of the gifts of caring for Mum during her 15-year dementia journey was that it drew us together as a family. Strangely, even the dark cloud of dementia can have a silver lining.