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Childish treatment challenge

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carers, communication, film and literature

This morning, on my way to my Quaker Meeting, I rescued a child. Well, not exactly rescued, but I did respond to a distress call.

I was walking down one of the lovely local leafy lanes (I just love all those ‘l’s!) and from behind a hedge I heard a small voice calling out: ‘Help! Mum! I’m stuck.’ The voice was clearly distressed and the call was repeated with increasing tearfulness. I wondered whether to leave the response to the ‘Mum’ in question, but did not know whether she had heard the cries. So I walked to the gateway of the house and saw a young girl (About 8 years old? I’m not very good with ages) standing outside in her pyjamas, her feet balanced on a ground-floor windowsill with her hands clinging onto the open top window above.

The girl was crying. I asked if she was OK and whether her mother had heard her and was coming. She said that she didn’t think so, then launched into a garbled story muddled by tears about how she had been naughty in some way. It felt wrong to go and lift her down – I was a stranger to her and didn’t want to frighten her further – so I reassured her and suggested that I knock at the door to fetch her mum. The girl agreed readily. When I knocked, the door was opened by her father. I said that I wanted to alert him to his daughter’s situation and his immediate response was: ‘She’s been naughty, but thanks’ as if this explained everything.

At Meeting I found it hard to still myself and stop thinking about what had happened. How had the girl got there? Had she climbed out of the window and not been able to get down, or was she trying to get in? I thought about the punishments we mete out as adults to naughty children. I thought about the book I am reading and how I treat my dad.

The book I am reading is ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ by Emma Healey. The protagonist and narrator is a woman who has memory problems, and whose attempts to solve the mystery of her missing friend, Elizabeth, are hampered by those around her not listening or taking her concerns seriously. When you buy multiple tins of peaches every day at the shop, having forgotten what you went there for and what you bought there yesterday (peaches), people tend to stop taking seriously anything you tell them. So Maud has to somehow go about finding the answers on her own, assisted by her somewhat haphazard note-writing.

I am only 36 pages into the book and already it is painful reading. It is painful because in every description of the reactions of the carers and of Maud’s daughter I see my own reactions to my dad. And it is challenging reading. The sighs (when something is repeated for the hundredth time), the looks, the resigned voice, the lack of attention to what Maud is actually saying – all these things I have done to my dad, and more. It made me feel so sad that I almost couldn’t face reading on.

When someone has memory problems or dementia, it is so easy to slip into treating them like a child – to ditch the respect and attention we would give to the words that other people say, to be impatient. After meeting the distressed child I questioned in my head what reaction is appropriate to ‘naughtiness’, but obviously I did not know the circumstances or background of the situation. Certainly, with my own son, I never managed to handle things very successfully, but I did make the effort to find some sort of equilibrium. With dad, I don’t often give him the respect of switching my brain into gear at all.

So I’ll take this opportunity to say ‘Sorry, dad.’ And: ‘I love you.’ Of course the two are irrevocably intertwined. Without love, I wouldn’t be making the effort (or the mistakes) at all.

© Anne de Gruchy

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