‘Daddy’s dementia makes me preoccupied with death’

‘Daddy is lucky. These days he seems oblivious to the confines of his nursing home walls’

Áine Ryan with her father, George.

Daddy's dementia makes me preoccupied with death. His death. My own death. My baby brother Dermot's painful death from pancreatic cancer. Mammy's death last year from Parkinson's disease. The fact that death is everywhere, every day: in mangled cars on motorways; in blown-up buildings in Aleppo; in children's hospital wards; in nursing homes all over the western world where old age is increasingly more institutionalised, medicalised, corporatised.

I have told my island-born daughters – the pirate princesses – that when the time comes to put me “out to grass”, they should despatch me back to the island where I can wander the byways and boreens talking to myself. There, I can wear my red or pink beret and smoke Gitanes cigarettes, just like I did when I was a wide-eyed university student.

Instead of being locked up like Daddy, I can gather wild flowers and make garlands of daisies or bog cotton for my grey thinning hair; play hide and seek with the baby lambs; sit on hummocks of spongy peat and slip across the edge of the ocean to meet for secret trysts with old lovers.

Áine Ryan’s father, George

Daddy is lucky. These days he seems oblivious to the confines of his nursing home walls. He is no longer on the warpath to escape.


He has adapted to the constrictions of his mini world.

Well, it is filled with nooks and crannies where he regularly runs into “beeaauuutifull” nurses and carers with whom he can flirt, serenade with his songs.

It doesn’t mean though that he doesn’t still have a spark of rebellion, a boyish boldness, a tongue that trips off expletives as if he was saying his five-times tables.

Rather it is me who cannot adapt or accept on occasions that this is how my dear daddy is ending his days here on the wild west coast far from the familiarity of his Dublin city apartment, his native Dundalk where he regularly returns in his reveries.

So sometimes I drag myself down to the nursing home, dreading the smell of old age; George’s barrage of repeated questions; the sight of little old ladies holding on to their bulging handbags as if they held the crown jewels; the sadness of wrinkled men who were once the tunnel tigers of the British underground railway system or seafarers whose hands were once as big as tree trunks from pulling currachs.

On such days, when my existential angst is frayed, I bring George for a drive – well, if he agrees.

“I’m going to bring you for a drive today, Daddy,” I say breezily on a recent visit.

“I spent my life driving, Áine, I just want to relax today and chat to you about my lovely granddaughters. Tell me their names again?”

But I’m not in the mood for repeating the names of my daughters at least a thousand times over the following hour. It is a winter’s day and I feel worn out.

“It is very cold outside, so you need to put on your coat, and cap and a scarf. You just stay here and I’ll run down to your bedroom and get them.”

“What do you mean “my” bedroom? Is this not a hotel?” And I’m not wearing that big f***ing coat, Áine.”

Daddy adds a chorus of other expletives when he realises he has an audience. We are standing in the middle of the reception area.

“I am putting your f***ing coat on you now and your cap and your scarf. It is the middle of winter and is freezing outside and I assume you do not want to spend another night or two on a f***ing trolley on a corridor in Mayo University Hospital.”

Sunned silence There

is a stunned silence as staff scurry away, shocked at my emotional exorcism. Five years of frustration, careering from one crisis to another catapulted out of my mouth in that moment.

“Okay, now Daddy, that wasn’t so difficult, was it.”

And so we head off on our usual odyssey: stopping at Westport Quay where I buy him a bar of wholenut chocolate and a bottle of Lucozade.

Then we cruise around the undulating bends of Clew Bay, past a snowcapped Croagh Patrick and down the side road to Bertra beach, where winter storms turn this tombolo inside out and upside down at a whim.

Daddy sings all the way there and all the way back to the nursing home. He is like a young boy who just saw his first love on the other side of the dance floor.

How would you like to be,
Down by the Seine with me,
Oh, what I’d give for a moment or two,
Under the bridges of Paris with you.

SERIES: Daddy, dementia and me
Part 1: I couldn't see him so confused
Part 2: How can I tell him his son is dead?
Part 3: The stand-off about a car
Part 4: Daddy talks to me about Mammy
Part 5: He left the wedding for a cigarette
Part 6: If granny had drowned that day
Part 7: A drummer boy on your tree?
Part 8: Preoccupied with death