The pain and pride of becoming a parent to my father: As dementia claims a beloved dad, a daughter’s moving story
By Rebecca Ley
PUBLISHED: 21:02, 4 April 2012 | UPDATED: 21:02, 4 April 2012
Guardian angel: Rebecca as a baby with her father
Last week, a shopping receipt made me cry. The ink was faded, but I could make out the groceries my father used to buy for himself. German biscuits. Ham. Cherry tomatoes. The particular kind of apricot juice I always thought was too sweet.
It’s a banal list, but one that made me catch my breath. For my father Peter, 76, can’t do ordinary things such as going to the supermarket any more. This unexpected reminder of the man he used to be, the decisions he used to make, drove that home.
He has vascular dementia — Alzheimer’s less famous twin. A series of tiny strokes, cloudbursts in his brain, are destroying him. Every week, he gets a little worse. Once a proud Cornishman who strode the cliffs and built granite walls with ease, he now shuffles, and trembles as he eats.
The reason I came across the receipt, tucked into the middle of an old chequebook, is because I look after his finances. Before he became ill, when he and my mother divorced, it was decided that I, the eldest daughter from his second marriage, should have power of attorney if the worst should happen.
Now it has and, as I live more than 300 miles away, managing his affairs has become my way of loving this new version of him. But this ‘dadmin’, as I call it, is difficult; though not as hard as showering and dressing him, or weathering his thunderous moods, I hasten to add. That role falls to his fantastic carers, who have made a difficult situation bearable.
Yet it’s extremely hard all the same. A constant worry hums along in the background of my life, sometimes swelling to absorb whole days. I have gone from having a single bank account and a joint mortgage to managing four properties and nine tenants (Dad used his hard-earned savings to join the buy-to-let boom), employing three people and juggling various ISAs and investments.
From not thinking about money beyond whether I could afford a splurge at Topshop, I have had to acquaint myself with paying his employees’ national insurance and getting the best deal on building cover and reinvesting bonds. You might say, at the age of 33, it was high time I grew up — and you might be right. But it is hard, when you have never done these things before, to be thrust into the thick of someone else’s finances.
It is not as if I got a proper handover. As Dad grew increasingly confused — losing his car, dismantling appliances at night — we all hoped it might just be stress. This seemed to be borne out by the opinions of various doctors, all of whom were loath to mention the ‘D’ word. But soon the fact of dementia was incontrovertible. And by then it was too late to ask Dad how he liked to run things, so I have had to pick up the pieces as I have gone along.
It has taken a surprisingly long time to get organised. Arranging internet banking was a labyrinthine process; closing the various small savings accounts he held at different places has involved endless letters and photocopies of the power of attorney document. Then there were the things that needed — in some cases still need — to be sold.
There was the camper-van he adored and always tried to lend me, the hull of the vast yacht he spent all his spare time working on and in which he dreamed of sailing round the world, the car he had to give up when doctors told him he wasn’t safe to drive. I have had support. My mother, sisters and husband do everything they can to help, while two accountants valiantly try to make sense of my frequently confused instructions.
But when it is you who has the authority to sign a cheque or transfer funds, there’s only so much of the workload you can share: the buck stops here. Even two years on, I make mistakes — such as trying to pay his tax bill just after his carers’ wages had cleared out his account. I struggle to keep up with the constantly changing hours of those who are employed to care for him and the various main-tenance duties that always require doing at his properties.
I always have the sense that there is something I should be doing. Grown-up personal finance involves effort — a concept I hadn’t understood. It has also been disconcerting to discover that the man who always prided himself on being so good with money wasn’t the financial whizz I had taken him for. I found a lump sum sitting uselessly in his current account and, what is more, the investment portfolio that used to require lengthy perusals of the Financial Times to keep in check would barely cover a fortnight of his current care needs.
Of course, he didn’t do too badly. It is a credit to a lifetime of hard work that a mechanic who left school at 14 has a property port-folio that needs to be managed on his behalf. It has been odd acting in loco parentis while he sits there, drinking endless cups of tea and watching Poirot reruns. He still recognises me — and my baby daughter, his beloved granddaughter — and I dread with all my heart the day he doesn’t.
But in so many of the ways that count, my dad isn’t there any more. And he has no concept of my efforts. Just as he thinks his carers enjoy spending time with him for 12 hours a day, he is unaware of the frantic juggling behind the scenes. Every day brings new challenges. He has recently been admitted to a nursing home, after an undiagnosed ‘funny turn’ — possibly another of the mini-strokes that mark his decline.
He has slipped down another notch and the prospect of his returning home, even with 24-hour care, is unlikely. After a bruising visit to see him in his new environment, it is already clear that the past two years — frightening and frustrating though they have been — were a picnic compared with what his future holds. My role managing his affairs will diminish in importance, yet I already feel a kind of nostalgia for the recent past.
I need to rearrange work and childcare to get down to Cornwall again soon. But in the meantime, I will continue to make calls, file correspondence, pay bills. It’s what I can do for him when I am so many miles away. Yet I can’t say that doing my ‘dadmin’ makes me feel much closer to him. Indeed, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to having felt frequently resentful. Why him? Why us? Why me?
But there are moments when I stumble on a fragment of the man himself, when I feel as if he is just there behind my shoulder. His loopy handwriting on a chequebook stub, a photograph of him and my mum on their wedding day, hopeful smiles lighting up the Cornish drizzle, that damned receipt. At times like that, I know he would be proud of me. He always was.
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