animals, dementia, life well lived

Hayley is Bernese Mountain Dog

You can imagine her galloping through lush green pastures dotted with wild flowers, pulling a small cart filled with canisters of warm, full-fat milk for jolly, smiling, be-pig-tailed children to gulp down before grabbing their satchels and heading across the alps to school.

Or something like that.

She’s a beautiful, big, furry dog; more of a rug than a dog. She is very nice to hug. It is very nice to hug a big furry, rug-like dog. Very therapeutic and with that in mind, today I took Hayley to visit Dad, who has moderate dementia and living in a wonderful homely place where he has good care and lots of friends. 

Dad was looking at a pamphlet, a something about an Indian music festival. He’s never had any interest in Indian music, but with his illness, all sorts of things now take his fancy.

The sudden appearance of an enormous hound of the mountains did not deter him from his perusal of said pamphlet and I spent quite a bit of time during our visit patting Hayley myself.

Dad isn’t great at conversation. He’s lost quite a bit of that part of the brain which enables him to understand what people are saying to him and to find the words to respond. At least, that seems to be what’s happening. He speaks using real words, all the nouns and verbs are in the right places, it’s not gobbledy gook. It just doesn’t make sense in the context of the conversation.

That doesn’t mean we don’t communicate. It’s just different now.

We communicate through experience. Going for a walk, looking at the leaves changing colours, watching some construction workers, smiling at babies in prams, folding napkins, and yes, patting dogs.

Dad finished with his pamphlet and handed to me. He suddenly seemed to notice that the big furry rug at his feet was moving, apparently standing up and ramming its head into his lap.

“Oh, yes I see you, I see you” Dad said as he stroked her broad head, fringed with silky tufts. He chuckled softly.

Dad loves dogs. He always has, but now he has a different kind of affinity with them. Small children too. Neither dogs nor small children are bothered by Dad’s odd sentences. His inability to communicate verbally doesn’t trouble them. They’re all quite content just to be together.

Hayley makes me happy too. I’m just taking care of her for a few weeks and it will be sad to say goodbye. I shall miss the morning hugs only a big furry rug-like dog can give.

Written July 2016
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Brain Trees

Brain Trees

Brain Trees


It was another bad bush fire season, that summer of 2009. Historically high temperatures had dried the land to kindling. Fanned by gale force winds, over a million acres burned in the Black Saturday fires, homes destroyed, many lives lost.

I was sitting behind Mum in the backseat of Dad’s car on our way to my cousin’s wedding. We hadn’t been to the restaurant before, but it was located on of the main thoroughfares branching out of the city not far from my old school and as long as the ash-darkened horizon was ahead we were moving in the right direction.

We found the venue all right; it was the getting home that was the trouble.


Some twenty years earlier, during the equally devastating Ash Wednesday bush fires, my Year 8 science class sat in the lab and watched the topsoil from cleared Mallee farmland come rolling in over the city.

We were fascinated and excited in that way you are when you don’t really believe the frightening thing will happen to you.


The ceremony was lovely, the bride look gorgeous, the happy couple danced for us and the food was wonderful. Then we started for home.


Tracey, a girl in my year, lost her home in the Ash Wednesday bush fire. Everything destroyed. I remember her distress at losing her childhood photos. Life before the fire. I wondered what it would be like to look at them, had they survived. This is us before the fire.

Photos are past things, they show who you once were. Would you want to remember?



I’m visiting Dad where he lives now, in low support accommodation. I’ve brought the photos he took of us, my brother and I, when we were little.  He didn’t know by then that I was his daughter, but the brain retains something known as ‘connectivity’, the neurologist tells us. Dad smiles absently at the baby snaps. I’m not feeling the connectivity.

The photo of him, his brother and sister as young adults in their front garden registers no response either.

‘Who’s that, Dad?’ Shakes his head. ‘Don’t know’.

‘That’s you!’


But he reacts to the photo of my grandparents, pointing and murmuring, in his mind a little boy again.


My school year had a reunion a few years back. I didn’t go. People had put up photos from that time on a special Facebook page.

I couldn’t bear how young we looked.


The summer Mum died was hot, the hottest I can remember for a long time with strong northerly winds, a childhood summer when the weeks stretch out forever. I swept up the fallen leaves in the communal laneway with Dad’s old rake and peered into the sky, ‘See, Dad, see how well I’m coping?’

But the neighbours are cranky.

‘Your father never did anything about that messy lane.’

In the house I shout and slap the tabletop stinging my palms and in Dad’s shed I find a saw and attack one of the branches of their stupid trees which hangs over our garden, stopping our trees from getting the light.  The saw is a bit rusty and I’m not strong enough. I throw it down and pull on the branch. It doesn’t give. I take off smaller branches. I grab the secateurs and snip the ivy growing over the fence. The pestilential ivy they insisted on and which creeps into our garden. I snip and hack and yank bits out and then I fling all the branches and clippings over the fence. I hate them, I hate them.


Our brains have trees in them; treelike structures, called dendrites, are how a neuron receives data from other cells. Dendrites branch and leaflike structures emerge. 

If the parts of the brain’s cortex responsible for certain actions are not used regularly, dendrites go through a process of pruning. But on the other hand, dendrite forests flourish in brains of people who are involved with repeated activities, such as firefighters. The cortex of their brains is thick with dendrites in the areas related to generating just that action needed to put out the blaze.

Even the burnt bushland can recover given the right circumstances.


‘Dad…I don’t think this is the right road…’

I had to direct Dad home from the restaurant the night of my cousin’s wedding. He had been driving all his life. He had the roads of the city imprinted on his cortex like branches of a tree.

But suddenly my Dad didn’t know and at that moment I was thirteen years old again, leaning over the front seat, between my parents, guiding him onto the arterial, the blackened sky now all around us.

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Mens Social Club

The Wednesday Men’s Social Club

11.42am Robert slips out the gate with us and heads off down the street. Ben scuttles after him. ‘Robert! Rob, this way mate’, gently leads him back inside.

11.38am   Dad shakes Mary’s hand and says solemnly, ‘Thank you for coming’.

11.40am ‘Lovely to meet you Ken! You too Helen, Vicki’, says Mary. ‘We’d be delighted to have Ken join us on Wednesdays. I know it’s a big decision but having those free hours each week can really help…’

11.39am  I look at Mum. ‘This place is good. It would be good for Dad,’ (and for you too). It’s homely, set in a small but lovely garden.

11.37am and 10 seconds ‘Ken loves gardening, but it’s hard to get him going’, Mum says.

11.37am  ‘I live in this area, you know. I was -  ’

11.36am ‘Oh, well, they do it now and then, if there is enough of those things there’, Dad replies.

11.35am ‘Do you have a nice garden at home Ken?’ asks Mary.

11.32 am I turn to Dad, ‘You’d like that, working in the garden, wouldn’t you, Dad?’ Dad blinks and smiles gently.

11.31am and 10 seconds  ‘Then we do an activity, indoor bowling on cooler days or gardening on warmer ones’.

11. 31am  Arthur says, ‘I live in this area, you know. I was the bank manager. Yes, and I have two children, Susan - ’

11.30am  Dad doesn’t talk much these days. I move the plate of biscuits away. He’s already had four.

11.23am and 20 seconds ‘Well, let me tell you something about our programs’, Mary tells us they meet each Friday from 10am to 3pm and start with coffee or tea and biscuits and read newspaper articles and chat about current affairs. ‘The idea is to offer stimulation and social interaction’. We nod.

11.23am Arthur passes the biscuits to my mother. ‘I live in this area, you know. I was the bank manager. Yes, and I have two children, Susan, who’s forty-two now and is a lawyer and Geoffrey, he’s forty-eight and works in business.’

11.22am  Ben, the social worker, brings us mugs of coffee and a plate of chocolate biscuits.

11.20am  I’m jealous that Arthur has so much vocabulary.  I look over at a man seated by himself. Mary says quietly, ‘That’s Robert. He doesn’t sit with us but that’s OK. We keep an eye on him’.

11.18am   ‘Pleased to meet you, Ken. Arthur’s the name. I live in this area, you know. I was the bank manager. Yes, and I have two children, Susan, who’s forty-two now and is a lawyer and Geoffrey, he’s forty-eight and works in business. Yes, they’ve done well and they visit each other regularly!’

11.17am This is nice. This man is just like Dad. He’s wearing a suit and tie.

11.17am  Mary does the introductions, ‘Ken, this is Arthur’. Arthur shakes Dad’s hand. ‘Arthur was the local bank manager for many years’.

11.16am  Mary, the smiling centre manager, greets us and invites us in. The homely wooden table is scattered with newspapers and picture books. The space is bright and suggests ‘grown up kindergarten’ with posters, comfortable chairs, magazines, games. On a seat near the wall, away from the big table sits a big man, in green corduroys and a fair isle jumper.

11.10am  I feel nauseous but we get in the car, Mum, Dad and me, and drive to the Wednesday Social Club for men with dementia.

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dementia grief respite care

It’s Only For A Few Weeks

The manager welcomed us in with a beaming smile that never left her face. We plastered smiles on ours. She introduced us to residents. We said hello and immediately forgot their names. It smelled in that place, not unpleasant, but the smell of many people living closely together; old food and new cooking, dust and detergent, aftershave and floor cleaner, bathrooms and bodies and bed pans and bandages.

The place bustled with activity like a chaotic household: TV noise blared out from every room. Care attendants rattled trolleys up and down the narrow passage way. A young man in a tracksuit walked by clapping. A large woman with a wheeled walker moaned rhythmically, contentedly as she passed us by.

We trooped down the corridor behind the manager, my brother carrying Dad’s old leather bag.  The room was stale and anonymous. Walls a dull yellow. A small window with net curtains looked out onto nothing much. Furniture was sparse and utilitarian, a bed, a built-in wardrobe, a small TV cabinet, two chairs. We sat, stunned, making small talk, putting on a brave face, wanting to throw up.

The smiling manager brought us tea and cake on mismatched crockery. Hunks of crumbly yellow cake, burnt around the edges. She talked and talked, smiling and jolly. She was kind; Dad was in good hands. She was a true believer. The joyful environment was due to the Presence of God in This Place. The cake stuck in my throat. I slurped the tea, weak and milky.

We put Dad’s clothes in the cupboard. Cool cotton shirts, now labelled with his name, lovingly ironed by his wife of nearly fifty years, hung on a motley collection of coat hangers where other people’s clothes had once hung. I ran my hand over his tweedy grey and green jacket, stiff as a carpet. We’d brought jumpers too; the soft warm grey pullover and that navy one too. I pressed my face to them and breathed in the scent of him before releasing them to rest on the cheap chipboard shelf.

It was time to go. We stood, uncertain, unable to look at Dad. Then we plaster back on our fake smiles and mimic the manager, cheerfully waving goodbye as a carer directs Dad to the dining room.

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