What do you know about Land’s End?
Is it to you that place of natural beauty, the stunning rocky coastline on the South West tip of England where the final grain of solid terra firma dips its toe into the Atlantic and disappears beneath a vast gulf, an ocean?
Or is it the end of communication between you and a loved one with dementia? You standing on the cliff top, secure, firm-footed, with the familiar landmarks of vowels and consonants, sentences, paragraphs. Them wide-eyed, vacant, unable to understand or respond to the mass of information you try to impart, lost without words in a turbulent sea.
So much of life experience is our ability to talk to each other – words of comfort, words of caution, advice, direction, questions, words of love.
Without them, there can be an emptiness, a sense of the deep unknown, the oblivion of silence – adrift in open water, with no familiar landmark to guide by.
It’s been like that with my dad, who’s dementia has brought with it severe dysphasia, leaving him with an almost total inability to speak.
I try constantly to find something that will generate a response, launch some verbal life raft by which I can reach him, or he can reach me.
It’s hard. Really hard. I’m on that cliff edge and I see him beyond the jagged rocks, floundering in the churning waves. I’m calling to him, but my voice is carried away by the wind.
“Dad! Dad! I’m here! I’m trying to rescue you. Look! Look! Swim back to me. You can do it. Dad!”
But he’s fighting so much himself to stay afloat in the turbulent water, that he can’t negotiate a return to the shore he once knew so well. He sees me. He knows me. But he’s in a world beyond mine – a waterworld without words, to my solid rock of speech.
Some days I discover a life raft that does connect us – briefly bridge that gap between land and sea.
On my last visit, it was a photo album I took along, pictures from many years ago when I walked the South West Coast Path.
Dad gazed silently at the images, lingering over some – were they familiar, would he recognise them? Yes? No. Page after page he passed on without expression.
It’s a place we’ve visited many times together. The picture was of me sitting by the post. He pointed and simply said: “Land’s End.”
It may not seem much, but those were the first two clear words he’d spoken in weeks.
He’d come out of his sea and was back on the shore. Back with me. My Dad.
It was all too brief, but unforgettable and momentous – rather like a visit to Land’s End itself.
It can be an unfamiliar and sometimes scary experience visiting people with dementia, trying to reach out to them when they’re beyond your shoreline. The obstacles can feel overwhelming, requiring of effort – like climbing craggy cliffs, a terrifying drop below to the raging sea.
But when you go there and just let yourself be there, immerse yourself in that wild, untamed place, the rewards can be great.
Land’s End is not Journey’s End.
Footnote: Thanks to my nephew Huw for sorting the web links. A reminder about the MND documentary Filming My Father in Life and Death, which is on Channel 5 11th March at 7pm, which is about my cousin Steve Isaac. MND like dementia strips words away, but there are so many other ways to communicate.