Wednesday 19 December 2012

Christmases past and present

Christmas with dad
Christmas with dad
I think for most people Christmas is about the many traditions we each have for celebrating the festive season. For the last nine years our family traditions were modified to fit in with my dad’s life in care – this year will be our first Christmas without him, and to be perfectly honest I am really not quite sure what to expect.

Many people assume that visiting a loved one in a care home is hardly the ideal way to spend Christmas. I would admit it does take some adapting to – modifying your established routine can be a bit of an organisational and diplomatic challenge, eating two Christmas lunches (a small one with dad and then our main one with the wider family later in the day) is not ideal for the waistline, and you are in danger of spending the entire day rushing around to such an extent that you feel Christmas has totally passed you by, but I would not have missed those precious moments with dad for anything.

Our last Christmas with him came amidst the backdrop of huge problems within his nursing home (that I wrote about here), and dad himself was not at his best as he battled yet another chest infection. He struggled to eat much of his Christmas lunch and was entirely disinterested in his presents – in contrast to previous years when he demolished extensive 3-course meals and complained that he did not like his presents!

Our approach to Christmas for dad was always to make it as happy and festive as possible. We would decorate his room with traditional items that he was familiar with, fix his cards to the side of the wardrobe so that they did not mysteriously disappear, buy and wrap lots of presents (new clothes - since clothing wears out so quickly in care homes - and CD’s of much loved music were all staple presents), and arrive on Christmas morning, me resplendent in my Santa hat, with the camera and lots of festive cheer.

Our challenges were minimal, however, in comparison to the difficulties many family carers face when they are looking after a loved one with dementia at home over Christmas. For many carers Christmas is a time of isolation, and while their neighbours celebrate around them, 25th December will be just another day of relentless struggle and ultimately exhaustion. With so many services shut down for the holiday, Christmas can also be a nightmare time for getting help should your loved one become ill, or indeed be very frail and nearing the end of their life.

Even for carers who are more supported, many of the Christmas traditions can present challenges. For example some decorations can be dangerous if the person with dementia does not understand what they are, certain colours or flashing lights can cause upset, an excessively decorated or crowded dining table could lead to confusion, and even your menu may need to be adapted to take into account a loved one’s changing eating habits.

For most family carers, however, I think one of the greatest concerns can come from how visiting friends or relatives may react to your loved one’s dementia. Be mindful that they may need guidance to understand and support the person you are caring for appropriately. For example, it is not uncommon for people with dementia to forget how to open cards or presents – we coped with this by gently helping dad, rather than just waiting, or demanding, that he manage alone.

Of course whilst so many of us are focused on Christmas, is it also important to remember those people with dementia, particularly in care homes, for whom Christmas is not part of their tradition or religious beliefs. Their wishes can often be forgotten amidst the celebrations, and they can become even more confused or disorientated by Christmas paraphernalia that is alien to them.

Looking back now over those many Christmas with my dad during his years with dementia, I would advise anyone in the position that we were to make the most of those special times together. They do not last forever, and Christmas is overwhelmingly a time to embrace our families, particularly the most vulnerable amongst us. Sadly this year I will be putting my dad’s Christmas card on his grave, but memories of Christmases past (and particularly this one that I contributed to the Prime Minister’s Christmas dementia campaign ‘Xmas to Remember’) will warm my heart and hopefully ease the pain.

As this will be my last blog post of 2012, I will sign off by thanking you all for your support since I launched D4Dementia back in May. I am very proud of the way the blog has grown, the feedback from people of all backgrounds to say how much they have enjoyed reading it, and the recognition it received by being shortlisted for a Roses Media Award. My next blog post will be in January 2013, so until then keep warm, well and happy.

Merry Christmas, and may 2013 be the best year yet for improving the lives of people living with dementia and their families.

Until next time...

Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886

Wednesday 12 December 2012

When illness strikes…

Dementia brings so many concerns for the wellbeing of those who are living with it, not least the risk posed by infections. Whenever my father was struck down by a bug, suddenly we would be plunged into a world of relentless uncertainty, desperately hoping that he would make it through his illness, always mindful of the possibility that he would not.  

One of the most striking things about dementia is the physical decline that it can bring. My father went from being a man with a very imposing physique to someone whose body shrunk to less than half its size. He went from walking constantly to being unable to move independently, from feeding himself to being entirely dependent on others for his food and drink intake. He lost the fullness in his face as a result of having no teeth, his limbs became bony, his skin very fragile and prone to bruising and tearing, and he was doubly incontinent for the last nine years of his life.

This physical decline leaves the person much more susceptible to infections that can be potentially life-threatening. Losing weight makes the body more vulnerable generally, and losing mobility makes pressure sores more likely and respiratory illnesses more difficult to shake off. Swallowing problems greatly increase the risk of pneumonia as a result of choking, or dehydration from not being able to intake enough fluids. Lack of fluids means an increased risk of urinary tract infections, and incontinence doesn't help with that either. Incontinence can also contribute to pressure sores if the skin is not kept clean and dry, and in a person with fragile skin all over their body, skin infections as a result of cuts or scratches are also possible.

In fact if you sit and think about just how many illnesses can be associated with the physical decline that dementia brings it is actually frightening. Over my father’s 19 years with dementia, and particularly during the last few years when he became very frail, we experienced all of the above problems. It comes as no surprise to me that so many people with dementia end up in hospital; my dad needed hospital treatment for both pneumonias and UTIs during the last 9 years of his life. This involved IV antibiotics and fluids, plus oxygen therapy, suction and chest physio for the pneumonias and catheters for the UTIs.

Thankfully, given the very mixed experiences people with dementia can have in hospital (as I wrote about here), my father was mostly treated in his care home with oral antibiotics. The routine prescription of antibiotics may be increasingly controversial now, but in my dad’s case they certainly gave us additional precious time with him.

Illnesses in people with dementia, apart from being very distressing to watch, often make dementia symptoms much worse. Infections contribute hugely to increased confusion and disorientation, affect communication, and can result in a loss of independence in areas of personal care, continence and eating and drink that is not always regained. Sadly, however, it is almost impossible to avoid a loved one becoming ill.

Care staff are frequently compelled to come into work when they are unwell, since they will either not be paid or their employers will be short-staffed if they stay at home. Visitors often come into care homes and hospitals harbouring illnesses, and requests to stay away if you are unwell go unheeded. I distinctly remember encountering disgruntled relatives outside a care home I arrived at one day, unhappy that they were unable to visit their loved one due to the home experiencing an outbreak of diarrhoea and vomiting.

I am not suggesting that care homes can become sealed germ free places, clearly that is impossible, but halting the spread of illnesses within health and social care settings, and the wider community, has to be the overriding aim. It should never be the case that people with dementia are considered a burden that can be reduced by allowing illnesses to proliferate, putting the most vulnerable at risk of serious complications and possibly early death.

We all suffer when we are unwell with an infection, but people with dementia often struggle far more because they cannot articulate how they feel, what help they need or the treatments that they would want. In those circumstances they need particularly specialised care delivered by knowledgeable and sympathetic professionals, whose priority is to give that person the most effective care possible so that they have the best chance of recovery.

Sadly some illnesses are too severe to recover from – the last pneumonia my father had was one too many for his frail body and led to a slow decline until he passed away a month later. We always knew the day would come when he could no longer fight, and given his physical frailties and propensity for chest infections, it was highly likely that pneumonia would end his life. Understandably, having worked this out many years before he passed away, every time he was ill that chilling realisation that this could be his last fight loomed large on the horizon.

Of course you never know when these illnesses will strike – my dad had severe infections in the summer as well as the winter - but I know that the majority of carers are fearful of winter ills the most. They often hit our elderly, vulnerable loved ones the hardest, and not just in care homes either – many people living in their own homes struggle to keep warm enough and become more susceptible to respiratory problems as a result. So whilst us younger people are all striving to keep ourselves well, spare a thought for all those carers with frail relatives for whom this is a particularly worrying time of year. If anything persuades you to be mindful of good hand hygiene and infection control, I hope that preserving the wellbeing of our most vulnerable people is it.

Until next time...

Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Catching some z’s

There are few things more closely associated with wellbeing than a good night’s sleep. It is something many of us take for granted until it is disturbed by the people or environment around us, or when those dreaded nights of insomnia strike and you lie in bed wishing more than anything that you were asleep.

Although some people can function well on very few hours of shut eye, most of us struggle through the day when we have not had the sleep we need. Sleep deprivation as a result of being a parent is well documented, and yet very little is said about the many carers who never get a good night’s sleep because they are looking after a loved one. For those who are caring for a relative with dementia, sleepless nights can become a feature of everyday life that lasts for many years, draining both the carer and the person with dementia physically and mentally.

From the night terrors, sweats and hallucinations that can often accompany the earlier stages of dementia, to the way in which the disease can eventually remove that vital understanding about daytime and night-time, dementia poses many challenges around sleeping for the person with it and those who are caring for them. As dementia progresses the person living with it may sleep more and more, and in the end-of-life stage constant sleeping is not unusual.

A classic sleeping pattern for people with dementia is napping in the daytime and then being wide awake in the evening. This was certainly true of my dad. Throughout much of his dementia his daily routine involved both a mid-morning nap (before lunchtime) and an extended afternoon nap between lunch and teatime. Come the evening, however, he was invariably wide awake and would remain so for many hours.

People with dementia will often nap for the same reasons that anyone else might, so it could be as a result of being very relaxed, becoming bored, or because the room they are in is very warm or sunny. It could be a side-effect of medication, or an indication that earlier activities have tired them out. Personally I always found it very calming to see my father having a peaceful forty winks. The only time I ever worried was when he developed a sudden pattern of excessive sleeping, which in his case was always a sign of an infection brewing.

Dad’s napping never really affected his ability to sleep at night, although over the years some of his GP’s still offered prescriptions for sleeping tablets like the pills were sweeties to be doled out to all residents. Dad had never been a person who went to bed particularly early (despite being a farmer who needed to be up at the crack of dawn) so we requested that the care home staff never put him to bed before 10pm. If he went to bed too early he would be very restless, moving himself around, making loud noises and appearing very distressed. He could easily sleep in his comfy chair earlier in the evening if he needed to, but mostly he would be bright eyed and listening to his music.

From a digestive point of view, it is also very important to monitor bedtimes in relation to eating times. Often as people get older their digestion slows down, and going to bed too early can cause indigestion, leading to pain and discomfort that the person with dementia may not be able to articulate. If that person also has a swallowing problem (dysphagia, which I wrote about here), it becomes even more important to be mindful of their bedtimes. With dysphagia it is vital that the person is kept upright whilst taking anything orally to prevent choking (in our experience a profiling bed was never as effective as a chair and cushions for support). In my dad’s case this advice also extended to a prolonged period after any food or drinks (usually at least 2 hours) to help prevent vomiting, and reduce the chances of aspirating any vomit (which could lead to pneumonia).

There is often a temptation in care homes to put people with dementia to bed early just because it may be more convenient for the running of the home. If a person has been used to going to bed early, or worked shifts, then of course their established sleeping pattern should be respected, but if someone has always gone to bed later, making them revert to early bedtimes, the like of which they may not have experienced since they were a child, is totally unacceptable unless the person themselves wants to change their routine.

The exception of course is when illness strikes, which will naturally change sleeping patterns immensely. During those times bed is often the best place to rest and recuperate, although in my father’s case he had to feel extremely poorly before he would sleep peacefully in his bed without becoming agitated. Sleeping upright in his chair is something that dad had done prior to his dementia when he was chesty, and he retained that ability to sleep restfully in his chair during the numerous chest infections that he had when he was living with dementia.

In dementia’s shifting landscape, sleeping patterns may well come in phases, and they often require huge patience in order to cope with them. Helping someone with dementia to sleep, particularly at night, is about understanding their preferred times and places to sleep, the things that help them get to sleep or the triggers that keep them awake. Do that, and when they are finally catching those z’s, my best advice would be to catch some yourself.

Until next time...

Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886