The Loss of Fortitude: My Father’s Battle with Dementia

Sue Roome recounts a very personal – and timely – story of illness, old age and confusion.

Dad sat listless in the armchair. His left side drooped as if all of his bones had been removed. His face sagged and the stench from the vomit and faeces was a violation of my senses. He turned his eyes towards me as I stood in the doorway, lacking the strength to move his head. ‘Sorry flower, but I don’t feel well. I’ve made a mess,’ he said with slurred speech.

He had had a stroke.

Dad was the silent foundation of our family. He had worked as a master builder from age fourteen until retirement at seventy-three. During the Second World War, aged twelve, he refused to be evacuated with his brothers and sisters. Instead he chose to stay behind and help his father, an ARP warden. They would travel to bomb sites and make the structures safe and on more than one occasion remove the dead from the rubble. The work was dirty, dangerous and fuelled nightmares.

But now that strength, that fortitude was gone. It wasn’t just Dad who sat tilted in his armchair, the whole of my world had shifted too; the foundation had started to crumble.

It was on the ward, after an overnight stay and awaiting Dad’s release after a plethora of tests, I met James. His language was worthy of any navvy on shore leave. When he spoke, the nurses gave sympathetic glances and I returned embarrassed ones. Blue and white striped pyjamas hung on his frame. His hunched shoulders bore the weight of having lived too long and seen too much.  A permanent scowl and misery followed him around like a loyal, hyperactive cocker spaniel. The man was the epitome of neglect, and the antithesis of my dad.

Back in the day, Dad would be off to work by six in the morning and home for a family dinner by six in the evening. He always did the washing up. He spent his evenings with my mum, brother and I, helping with homework, watching TV or just listening to the radio. On the weekends he looked after his flowers and small vegetable plot in the back garden, while we played and helped either him or mum with the chores. He never had a cross word to say. Mum would get some little thing into her head, he would just say ‘yes dear,’ and carry on. They never argued, not in the same way they did on EastEnders. I asked him once when I was about ten and Dad was about fifty-five why that was, he just said,

‘Cos this is real life, and life is too short to worry about the little things.’ That sort of wisdom come from experience, not a classroom.

When I comment on James’s foul language or rude behaviour on the ward, Dad would draw down his wispy eyebrows and look far into the distance, confused. ‘Who are you talking about dear?’

I stopped mentioning James.

A week later I came home and found James in our home. I don’t know how he knew where we lived, or who let him in, but there he sat in the front room shouting at the T.V. batteries flying across the room as the remote smashed into the coffee table. ‘Turn over you stupid bastard, what the bloody hell is wrong with you? Where’s the football channel?’

I am ashamed to say I panicked. There was a stranger in my home, abusing my stuff and swearing at the top of his voice. I shouted. That’s incorrect, I scolded this octogenarian as if he were a three-year-old colouring on the walls. Hands on hips, face pinched and in one long breath I asked, ‘What do you think you are doing?’

Before James could unleash his venom, my dad made an appearance and offered to make tea.  By the time I had returned from taking my coat off and putting away my shoes, Dad had made the tea, was watching the footie and James had left. I gave no more thought to James but my relief at his leaving sat in my lap purring with contentment.

A few weeks passed and James had joined us for an evening meal. He hated everything about the shepherd’s pie. The mash was too lumpy, not enough gravy and the vegetables were undercooked. Even his glass of water was too cold.  The kids and I tried to ignore James. We tried drowning James out by talking about our day or asking Dad questions about his, but James just kept on and on. No one else was allowed to speak. The kids didn’t know what to make of James. Keeping their heads down they shovelled forks heaped with pie, the aim was to escape as quickly as possible. James insisted on doing the washing up once the meal had been consumed and the kid’s scrambled to do homework in their bedrooms.

James and I retreated to the kitchen. I made coffee for us all while he filled the washing up bowl. As the bowl filled with suds, James silently ran his fingers under the stream of the cold tap. The water running down his wrist and wetting the cuff of his cotton shirt.

‘Do you want to use my rubber gloves?’ I asked.

‘You think I am an old fool don’t you?’ he sneered at me.

‘No, I was just asking, that’s all.’

James slammed his hands in the half filled bowl, warm suds dripped down his shirt and onto his slippers. He turned, threw the wash cloth at me shouting,

‘That was your fault,’ and left the kitchen.

Numb, I turned off the taps, cleared up the water and made coffee, denial has become my constant companion. James had left again. It was just me and Dad. When Dad finished his drink, he did the washing up and we settled on the sofa, Richard Attenborough on the TV, one of Dad’s favourites.

Over the next two years James visited more frequently and for longer periods of time. Sometimes he spent the night. The kids and I discussed James once. We agreed to take dad’s stance on the subject and ignore him. James has become sneaky, hiding things from Dad, his walking stick, the TV remote, his glasses and James keeps turning Dad’s coats inside out so he gets wet in the rain walking to the paper shop in the morning.

James never speaks to my daughter, he always leaves when she is around, but that just means he has more opportunity to rage at me and my son. I am continually pulled between protecting my family and trying to be compassionate towards this old man. I hope to strike a balance one day but until that then I put up with my son’s frustration and reassure him that he is not ‘useless’ or ‘an idiot’ or a ‘failure’. I wear the bruises from the strikes of James’s walking stick that he has aimed at us. I carry the lines around my face from lying awake listening for James moving through the house, in case he decides to flood the kitchen again or commit ‘eggicide’. Cracking fifteen raw eggs on the kitchen counter looking for the boiled one. All I wear is a stifling scarf in summer around my neck every time I leave the house. Waiting for another stranger to call telling me they’ve found Dad and our dog where James dumped them, miles away. My patience is fragile as a house built on sand. Every time it falls I rebuild. I put up with all this to keep my family together. I have no choice. My relief has become a feral stray, chased off by the spaniel and only returns home when it can find nowhere else to sleep or eat.

Through this all I can never forgive what James has done to my father, my energetic, fun loving, and hardworking father. Dad smiles are a curve that can set anything straight, but are now rare. Dad just sits in his chair now, staring at the TV waiting for James to show up. Dad sleeps so much more. He eats so little his body is now feeding on the little muscle he has left. He is an echo of the man he once was, getting further away with every shout. I don’t cry, my dad does enough of that for the both of us.

My dad is eighty-seven years old, it has been two years since James made his first appearance. Dad was born on the 27th of April 1928. He has been known as Jim since he was little as he was the spitting image of his father, Jim. My father’s name on his birth certificate is James and he, like 850,000 other people in the UK, has the degenerative disease, dementia. Dementia cannot be cured, managed with drugs or removed with a surgeon’s knife. This is going to get worse, soon Jim will cease to exist. I will mourn the loss of my dad. I do now, a little more every day.

This article was originally published on Star & Crescent in March 2016, but was lost following the site being hacked last year. Thanks to two of our amazing volunteers, Rhiannon and Jordan, we will now be re-publishing two of these articles a month.