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The Big Birthday Bash

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carers, men and dementia

My dad was 90 earlier this year. My sisters and I spent a good few weeks debating the benefits and pitfalls of a big party. However, despite the fact that dad can no longer remember his friends’ names or what day of the week it is, for six whole months last year he remembered that he had a ‘significant’ birthday coming up and that this meant he was entitled to a party.

The party was the subject of many a jokey conversation with my dad, and grew bigger and more elaborate by the week. He smiled at the thought of it and I began to develop plans. The guest list grew then shrunk then grew again as the family tried to work out if a large number of people would confuse and disorientate him or be a source of pleasure. The likelihood that he would not remember old friends and whether this would distress him was mulled over. But dad’s joy at the idea was infectious and so the invitations went out.

The day I gave dad a copy of the invitation I’d designed, complete with steam trains and some big ‘nine zeros’, his face was blank. My heart sank that perhaps I had got this wrong. It was as if we’d never discussed this before, and to him, with his Alzheimer’s, this must have been how it felt. But dad is a sociable animal, and it was easy to re-engage his enthusiasm for the idea.

Dad’s sociability has been a surprise. When my lovely mum was alive it was obvious she was a ‘people person’, and she was always at the heart and soul of the local community. When she died, suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 80, her funeral packed the church and we ran out of Orders of Service, despite having printed up 100 copies. When my dad was left alone with his dog I think we all expected him to retreat a little from the social circuit. He is a man who likes peace, and detail, and steam trains, but who was never very engaged emotionally. Four years on, though, and dad always takes up a social opportunity if he has one. He goes regularly to church and to his clubs – Probus, 41 Club, the Model Engineering Society – and never, ever misses the chance of a meal out.

And so it was that the great day came. Dad was 90! We, his daughters, had congregated from our scattered corners of the world and he was surrounded by family and friends. People came from as far as Kent and the Lake District. A massive birthday cake in the shape of a nine zero lit up his universe with candles and sparklers. Dad beamed, the centre of attention amidst family reunions and old friends catching up.

Yes, we had to remind him who was who and how he knew people. But the faces were familiar, even if he couldn’t place them, and the knowledge of friendships and family connections clearly remained beyond the ability to recall the details of who, how, when and where.

Now, of course, dad is happily anticipating ten years on and his telegram from the Queen!

© Anne de Gruchy

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