My Story: Grandad and Me

"My grandfather was a uniquely intelligent and active man. He was a successful engineer and businessman. But also with such a love of literature he went back to university as a mature student to study it. He was a skilled painter, singer, actor, gardener, writer and sailor. He was still going to the gym and skiing in the French alps, a placed he adored, well into his late 70s.  

My grandma and he dedicated enormous amounts of time and effort to helping my mother raise myself and my brothers. He was, in many ways, a father to us. He picked us up from school, took us on long walks, drove for hours on holidays, played with us, talked with us for hours about books and history and built us toys from scratch - including a full doll's house for myself.  

Despite keeping an active mind and body throughout his life, by his mid-80s he was suffering with many conditions, kick-started by heart problems. Eventually, vascular dementia took hold of him. The granddad I knew slowly started to change. He couldn't understand or remember his new limitations or the medical advice he had been given and resisted it defiantly. He could no longer make his limbs do what he wanted them to and became weak. He rapidly lost his balance and autonomy. He had always been stubborn, particularly around ageing and his health, but his stubborn independence had never been a risk to his health before.  

His personality changed too. He began saying things he would never have previously said. He began swearing aggressively. I had never heard him swear once in my life - not even a 'damn'. He lost his ability to talk coherently and find the words he wanted to use. He became vulnerable to telephone and computer scammers. Then he lost his ability to recognise and empathise with the emotions of others. It was extremely hard for my grandma, my mum and my aunt who were with him most during this time. My mum became so exhausted from caring for him that she passed out in the shower, hitting her head and being hospitalised herself. 

He had at home care for a while, but it wasn't enough and was too expensive. Eventually, nor was the care home. Poor care is the subject of an ongoing inquest into his death - almost two years on. The first time I visited him in his care home, I did nothing but cry. But he didn't seem to notice. He just smiled vacantly. He didn't say much but as I left that day he kissed my cheek and said 'God bless you'. Something he hadn't done since I was a young child. He seemed to have forgotten that while religious for much of his life, he had pulled away from it in the last decade or two. He had told us during one of our long philosophical talks some years before that he thought perhaps 'god' wasn't a man or institution at all, but simply present in the trees and flowers and mountains and lakes. I wondered if he had forgotten that or was in fact returning to religion in his final weeks. Either way, as I held his hand throughout the week he spent unconscious and slowly slipping away, I kept repeating 'God bless you' to him. Just in case he could hear me. Just in case it brought him comfort at the end of his fight. 

My granddad lost his personality to Dementia, creating a prolonged, anticipatory grief for his family. But today, by connecting with the things he loved - writing, reading, the French mountains, nature, music, singing, painting etc - who he truly was before dementia remains alive and with us. And he really was completely wonderful."

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