‘Luckily, he is oblivious to the coronavirus crisis’: Daddy, dementia and me

I could repeatedly tell him all about Covid-19 and he would retain none of it

Áine Ryan with her father, George

Áine Ryan with her father, George

 

Turns out my timing was good to bring Daddy an early Easter chocolate bunny. He chewed his head off first, licked his lips and said it was the best chocolate he had ever eaten. Luckily, I brought a whole bag of them, along with a bunch of daffodils and news that there were baby lambs in the fields, even though spring hadn’t quite arrived meteorologically speaking.

Pathetic fallacy, the poets might argue.

A couple of days later a text message lands from George’s nursing home explaining that strict visitor restrictions were being implemented because of the developing coronavirus crisis.

Family and friends should only visit if the circumstances were urgent and should always phone the nursing home beforehand, the message stated. No non-essential visiting, children, or groups are allowed, it continued.

That all made perfect sense to me and, indeed, still does even though Dr Tony Holohan, the HSE’s chief medical officer, has now said that “blanket restrictions” were unnecessary at this stage in the crisis, adding that social interaction was key to the well-being of nursing home residents. This, of course, was before Thursday's announcement by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of the partial shutdown of the country. 

Frankly, I had felt a huge sense of relief that the decision to visit Daddy was being taken out of my hands.

Hysteria

I trust the original decision, which was made under the advice of Nursing Homes Ireland, and clearly supported by the expert staff who have cared for George every day since he became a resident almost five years ago.

What I liked about the message was that it was low-key and had no hint of hysteria. “Phew,” I exhaled as I read the message a second time.

Ironically, I was sitting in a crowded clinic in University Hospital Galway for a routine appointment. I had already grappled with the idea of cancelling the appointment, but had quelled my anxieties – forcing rational thoughts.

That didn’t mean I wasn’t stressed about being in the stuffy waiting room. For the entire period while I waited to be called, I sat straight as a pole while taking shallow breaths and was in real danger of collapsing and being rushed off to A&E on a trolley.

You have to laugh.

The news of coronavirus cases in “the west” meant there was an edgy air throughout the hospital. People were repressing coughs and embracing hand sanitisers as if they were being baptised in the river Jordan.

Meanwhile, back in the nursing home – like many other elderly dementia sufferers – Daddy was gloriously oblivious to the unfolding crisis.

Lucky boy!

Lockdown

I know that I could repeatedly tell him all about Covid-19 (as the new coronavirus is known) and he would not retain any of it because of his dementia.

I could tell him that two of his teenage grandchildren are in lockdown with their Italian mother in their home near Lake Como north of Milan, but what would be the point? He might ask about Dermot then, the boys’ father, and I would have to change the subject very quickly because my brother, and George’s youngest son, died almost three years ago.

On the other hand, though, I could ask him about the flu pandemic of 1968 and he would wax lyrical about how sick I was as a small girl.

“It was after you got the Hong Kong flu, Áine, that you started to get the nightmares,” he has told me on many occasions over the years. “Remember you woke up screaming because you thought there were snakes in your bed?”

“I don’t actually, Daddy,” I say, acknowledging a lifetime of nightmares. “The only vivid memory I have of that fever was stretching my feet down my little bed towards my hot water bottle and being greeted by the high-pitched miaow of our cat who had decided to commandeer the comfort of the undercover heat. I’m not sure who screeched the loudest.”

“The poor cat,” is his retort every time we recall that story.

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