A funny thing has happened recently – my Quakerly studies and thinking about simplicity have collided with my dad’s evolving care needs and his move into residential care, and I find that I am in solidarity with my father’s contracting world!
It is a hard thing to have to move away from your home and all that is familiar into a single bedroom within a communal setting – especially when you are a private man used to your own company and that of your little dog. It is harder still to make the move when you don’t understand or accept the reasons for it because of the effects of Alzheimers.
It has been an emotional time for all the family. My father has been assessed under the Mental Capacity Act and it has been acknowledged that he needs 24 hour care and the safety and support a residential care setting can give. Dad has agreed that the residential setting concerned should be the brilliant nursing home we have found here in Nottingham – near to me, his eldest daughter, and not in Dorset where he lived before. This does not mean that he is in agreement with the decision, but he has now accepted that he is staying and his anxieties have moved on to what will happen to his house and his possessions.
I cannot tell you how weepy and pathetic the whole process has made me. I understand the system well, having worked in mental health and dementia care for many years, but there is nothing that can prepare you for how it feels to have to make life choices on behalf of your own father. Even though our family is in full agreement about the best course of action to support dad and to give him the highest possible quality of life given his needs, it doesn’t stop that wrenching gut when you know that all he wants is to sit by his patio door in his favourite swivel chair and look out over the Blackmore Vale again.
So dad’s world is contracting. His Probus and 41 Club visits have been replaced by ones with a dysfunctional daughter – taking the dog for a walk by the canal or going to a classical concert in a city he remembers fondly from the times when I was a student here. Waxed up ears no longer require trips to the GP with a carer, but can be dealt with ‘on site’ (‘at home’, I should say) by one of the nurses at the care home. If he wanted he could chat to the many articulate and friendly members of ‘the family’, but, as I said, my father is a private man.
Having to reduce your possessions to what will fit in one room is a challenge, and has really made me consider what has value in life. Dad is unable to recall much, but together we are working out a hit-list of things he does not want to do without. He is not a sentimental man, but most of what will remain actually has a high sentimental content – photographs of the family and dad’s dog, soft toys that he has become attached to, railway books and CDs of favourite music even though he no longer plays these, some furniture from his house.
Dad’s situation set me to thinking how I would handle an enforced downsize – assuming my brain still worked more-or-less normally – and I came to the conclusion that it is about making positive choices rather than negative ones. What are the things that I would really value and need? What would sustain and uplift me? It would surely involve considering what I would like to take with me rather than what to leave behind. We are back to the old chestnut of that quote from William Morris: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’
But it is more than that. When our world contracts it comes down to the relationships we have with both other people and ourselves – and, of course, God. My dad’s relationship with his daughters and his local friends has largely determined the level of care and support he has had in recent years. Familiar faces, even though names are long-gone, are welcome and reassuring. Routine, and a sense of self within it, helps to anchor him in a new place.
I have spent a lot of time recently considering what simplicity means to me, and I am perhaps moving away from it being to do with possessions (although what we own, and how much, is of course important and reflects our values in a world of huge inequality) and moving towards making space for that connection with God. Centering prayer and meditative practice provide a deep grounding that immediately feels simple – it is emerging out of this into the world that proves more difficult. For me the knack is to keep that sense of simplicity, of an integral connection to God, in everyday actions and activities.
So here our worlds join up again. A simplicity that connects us to God and drops away the importance of possessions and places. Old age and ill health may result in a contraction of our world, but in doing so it makes us focus on what is really important in our lives and maybe, just maybe, helps us to connect more intensely to God in the process.
Playing ‘musical furniture’ in dad’s new room – trying to find the most relaxing and practical arrangement – only to end up back at the original layout half an hour, and a lot of puff, later.
The intense joy of singing with others at a recent joint concert with another community choirs.
© Anne de Gruchy