Today marks the start of World Alzheimer’s Month.
Among events being organised are a series of memory walks.
Walking has been a part of my life since I was a small child. Alzheimer’s too. My gran was the first to suffer from this terrible disease, over 40 years ago, followed by many other family and friends since.
My dad is the most recent family victim of this life-changing illness. He was diagnosed with vascular dementia three years ago, aged 70.
It was his 73rd birthday last Thursday. What gift do you give a father whose day is mostly limited to sitting in a chair all day long? No ability or interest in reading, writing, watching television, music or games. Communication skills reduced to a few words. His mind breaking down, his body beginning to fail him too.
His frailty now is in stark contrast to how he used to spend his time, or how we spent time together. It was my dad who instilled in me a love of walking and the outdoors from an early age.
We’ve walked together throughout my life, much of the time across the wilds of Dartmoor. Our first camp out was when I was about 10-years-old. There was an overnight frost. We played noughts and crosses in the morning dew of the tent lining.
We covered about 25 miles in two days. I was as tired as I’d ever been. When the going got tough, Dad’s advice was to put my foot where his had just left, concentrating on filling that imprint and thus keeping pace together.
There’s a particular craggy tor, remote from habitation – the rugged heart of Dartmoor – that dad loves with a passion. Over the years we’ve walked this rocky, boggy, hilly route in fog, snow, driving rain, sunshine, even in the dark.
It was with a huge degree of trepidation that we set out from the car park. Trepidation on my part. Dad’s level of confusion now is such that he has little grasp of reality beyond his own limited world.
“Are you sure you want to do this walk Dad?” I asked, concerned for his vulnerability, questioning again my own sense and judgement in planning such an expedition.
“Yes, of course,” he replied. “It’s my birthday.”
As we set off it was like I could see his footprints down the years, still lying in the peaty ground – me again placing my boot, where his had once been.
Of course this time, it was me holding the map and compass. Me carrying the bag and full weight of responsibility for our trek. Me leading. Dad following my footprints.
At first the path was quite well-trodden and we made reasonable progress. Then there were challenges and hurdles to overcome, a stream to cross, stiles to get over, stony ground and bogs to negotiate.
It was hard. Very hard. At times – with the benefit of hindsight – foolhardy hard. Dad was bewildered by the stream and the stiles. He slipped several times, falling completely on a couple of occasions. He was at times emotional, upset by the struggle and stirred memory of lost ability.
But we persevered on together. Dad’s immense love of the moor and past depth of knowledge of it, is such that he still retained an innate desire to keep going and sixth sense to help overcome his confusion and make progress.
We reached a tranquil spot, the river babbling over rocks nearby, green hills rolling away in the distance. We found a rock and sat down for a picnic lunch.
Dad can’t articulate and doesn’t respond with normal human emotions much these days. But I could tell that here in this wild open space he felt at home and at peace. He even pointed in the right direction, towards the far tor we always used to make for. “Up the hill,” he said. “That way.”
As we sat eating our sandwiches and drinking from a shared flask of coffee, I felt as connected to him as I’d been in a long time. Some of his character reclaimed, even if it was a packet of crisps that he was focussing on.
I decided to take a photo of the stunning view on my phone.
There was a text message from a close friend, who herself is struggling with the devastating impact of dementia on her family. Her text was to say she’d just lost someone very special to her.
The shock and grief of this terribly sad news washed over me immediately, I couldn’t stop the tears running down my face.
Dad looked up from eating. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “You’re upset.”
“I’ve just heard that one of my friends has died Dad,” I said, crying.
He reached out, took my hand and held it tightly.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
It was the most real understanding and empathy he’s shown, since dementia started chipping away at his core. He was a concerned dad again – brief lucid precious seconds of roles being reversed and him caring for me.
A spiritual moment.
Then the physical reality of making our way back – thankfully the going being easier on the return journey.
The closer we got to the car park and civilisation, the more dad kept trying to turn around and head up to the wild open moor.
I had to take him by the hand several times and keep telling him: “No dad, it’s this way.”
But in my heart I know the compass in his mind was pointing him to his distant unreached tor.
That his soul was calling him there.
That his footprints lead that way.
I know because I’ve walked in my father’s footsteps.
NB: There’s more about the memory walks via this link http://www.memorywalk.org.uk//