I decided to take my mum on holiday. It seemed like such a good idea at the time. Mum was feeling very sad about losing my father and was lonely at home on her own. My father died the year before. Mum was devastated. She understandably hadn’t got over the loss, as they had been married for many years. Her dementia had noticeably worsened since the loss of my dad. Which is apparently fairly common. She’d been his carer and caring for him had given her a focus. Without him, she had no purpose. She lost interest in everyone and everything and her dementia symptoms began to progress. It was almost like the deterioration had sped up.
I decided mum needed a break. She’d been through so much. So I booked at two-night stay at a health spa. I felt that two days of good food, a relaxed atmosphere and luxurious surroundings would do her the world of good. I thought I had it all planned out. The spa was an hour’s drive away from her house. I picked her up and drove us there. We checked into our shared room, which was lovely, and had lunch. All was going well. Then during the course of the afternoon, her mood began to change. Many people had come to the health spa to relax and have a massage or beauty treatments and many guests were walking around in robes. Mum found this unnerving. I booked her in for a pedicure. I thought she would enjoy it. I waited outside the treatment room to ensure she wouldn’t get lost afterwards. The therapist walked her out and was very friendly. ‘Lovely to meet you, Hazel’, she beamed at mum. Mum turned to her angrily and said: ‘I won’t be coming back here again. It’s like a bloody hospital.’
I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I apologised to the lady who had provided the pedicure. She smiled and told me it didn’t matter. I walked mum back to our room. She was angry and frustrated. I tried to reason with her. I told her it wasn’t acceptable for her to be rude to staff at the health spa and they were only doing their best to make her feel comfortable. This was my naivety at the time. I had no idea that dementia affected moods and behaviour quite so much. I also didn’t realise that you can’t always reason with a person when they have dementia. Empathy may not exist anymore. Mum was no exception. She didn’t care. She just got more angry. And when we got back to our room she let me know just how angry she was feeling when she threw a purse at my head. I ducked, and coins spilled out all over the wall behind my head. Then she crumpled to the floor and burst into tears. I didn’t know what to say. I felt sorry for her, but I also felt so frustrated she felt the need to say and do nasty things to me. I was only trying to help her. I had brought her here, taken time off work, done my best to make sure she was having a break and a good time, and to my mind, she had thrown it back in my face.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was witnessing dementia in one of its worst forms. Dementia affects mood and behaviour and there can be times when the person you are doing your best to help, support and love appears to be throwing all of your good intentions back in your face. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just the brutality of the disease.
My mistake was to take mum out of a familiar environment and put her in a setting where she thought she was in a hospital. I should have guessed that a busy environment with lots of strangers wearing robes could be confusing and even frightening. And I had taken her way from her home and her daily routine. I realised quite soon afterwards that mum was happiest when she was at home, surrounded by her family. We came home a day early. And mum was happy again.
When you take a person with dementia on holiday it’s important to bear in mind that they may not respond well to change. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try it… just be aware that they may be confused or disorientated. Be sensitive to that. Start with short breaks to begin with. Don’t take them too far from home, so if you do have to come home early it’s not too far away to drive back. Experiment and see if it works on shorter breaks before trying longer ones.