It was my birthday two days ago. My first one since mum died. A few friends asked me if I felt sad celebrating my special day without mum being here to share it with me. It sounded strange to them, but my answer was no. It felt like mum hadn’t been with me for a long time. Last year, when mum was still alive and in the latter stages of her dementia, she had no concept of dates, times, schedules or much of anything else. She was winding down. The year before that, in 2015, I ran the London Marathon close to my birthday and showed her my medal. She always loved watching the marathon and was fascinated by the images of the sea of runners. She didn’t smile much then, but I thought it might make her happy. It had the desired effect. ‘Here’s my medal for completing the London Marathon,’ I told her proudly. She looked excited, which was a rare thing at that stage. Her eyes lit up. She put her hands out to hold it. I handed her the heavy medal. ‘It’s lovely,’ she said. ‘I’m so proud. Did you tell Dad you ran the marathon?’
I shook my head. ‘Not yet’. She leaned over and patted my leg. ‘Make sure you do. He’ll be ever so proud.’
My Dad died eight years before. I held back the tears and changed the subject.
This is the reality of dementia.
A person may forget who is dead or alive. Dates and times don’t mean much to a person in the mid or latter stages of the disease. The person will forget birthdays and special occasions like Easter and Christmas. They don’t mean to. It just happens. My mum had grandchildren, and she was very proud of them. I would buy presents and cards for my niece and nephew on her behalf, so that she never missed their birthdays. She never missed Christmas either. I always ensured ‘mum’ had bought gifts for everyone. Of course, my niece and nephew both understood the situation. They knew I’d purchased the gifts on her behalf. It didn’t matter. I was partly doing it for them but also doing it for mum. Once or twice, when she had forgotten to buy gifts for family members and I hadn’t realised how serious her dementia was, she felt terrible she had forgotten. She got very emotional that she’d missed important birthdays. After that, I always made sure she never missed a birthday.
It was part of helping mum feel good about herself. Letting her forget important occasions caused her distress. So I covered for her and bought presents. I tried not to take over and guess what she would have bought. Sometimes we would go out together and mum would choose the presents. We’d make a day of it, stopping for lunch and coffee, and having a nice chat. It did us both good. When she could, she would even wrap the presents. Admittedly, she’d forgotten about all of this afterwards, but it didn’t matter. It was about making her good about herself at that point in time.
Sometimes, I didn’t have time to take her shopping for birthday gifts. I’d buy the presents in a rush online when I was on my own. I admit I sometimes pretended we had bought them together. Or when it was my birthday, she’d say: ‘I didn’t get you a card’ and I’d smile and say: ‘You gave me one earlier’.
To anyone who hasn’t experienced dementia, this may all sound trivial, but I know it’s important. It’s about making the person with dementia feel good about themselves. About building their confidence and making them feel safe. Otherwise, they will be distressed that they have forgotten special dates and anniversaries of loved ones. And this will incite fear. Fear and self-realisation that things are getting worse. One of the best things you can do for a person with dementia, apart from your time, care and patience, is to boost their confidence. Let them feel as in control of things as possible. Even if it’s not the case. It’s one of the best gifts you can give.