It’s the small things: What I learnt from caring for my father
There are more than 425,000 Australians living with dementia; but it only takes one to change your understanding of the condition.
For me, it was my dad, Lionel.
Dad emigrated from England when he was 18 years old. He’d just finished his apprenticeship as a mechanic and headed up to the Kimberley where he became a stockman – even though he’d never ridden a horse!
He went on to work as a mechanic. He used to drive all over the state fixing lighting plants – and getting to know all the very best picnic spots.
He loved driving, and many years later when he was living with dementia it was still something he always wanted to do. If he could go out in a bus or a car, even for the whole day, he would do that.
For me, one of the most important things I learnt about caring for someone with dementia was understanding what was important to him.
He went to Seniors Centres regularly but the highlight for him was the drive; he’d be waiting in the morning for the bus at 7am (even though it didn’t come to 9am). The drivers knew he loved to drive so they arranged it so that he’d be the first one on the bus and the last one to be dropped off.
One day we took him for a drive for 10 hours, up to Three Springs to see the wildflowers – and on the way back he asked if we were going through the Chittering Valley because we hadn’t done enough!
Dad lived with us for five years. It was a full house for a while; our kids were in their 20s and there was a lot of coming and going, but everyone got along really well…albeit not without its challenges! We would take dad to the footy, and the kids would chat to him, and of course we’d go on drives. If he needed a break, he would go and listen to classical music on his radio, which he loved because his mum had been a piano teacher.
One of the hardest things was watching his personality change; he became very quiet, and he had some quite challenging behaviour. But even so, being able to have him at home after mum died was very special.
In hindsight, you think of things you should have done things differently. On reflection I wish I had sought more support to understand what was going on for Dad at the time, but always felt ‘too busy’. You get so busy running around after a family and at work. Now I wish I’d spent more time just talking with him.
Often, I took for granted what he wanted to do, or I assumed what he should do, rather than having a conversation with him about it.
I think that with people with dementia, we often forget to talk with them and ask them what they think…at least I did.
This is why I am so proud to work for an organisation that is committed to providing dementia-friendly services, and taking the time to have those conversations.
The theme for this years’ Dementia Awareness Month is Small actions. Big difference. And from my experience, I would say the small things that make a big difference to someone with dementia are: taking your time to find out what they enjoy; listening beyond the obvious to what it is that’s important to them; and spending time talking with them.
It will make a big difference.
Photo: Lionel (on the right) outside the Crossing Inn in the 1950s, with best friend Frank