An altogether quieter funeral

Today is the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. I was not a fan but I’ve always been taught that ‘if you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all.’ I don’t always manage to hold to that tenet but today I shall.

holding hands elderlyToday instead, I shall think of Ivy. Ivy was an elderly member of this congregation. Ivy was lost. I mean that when I first came here Ivy was not at home and we had no contacts to find out where she have moved to. I think it took a year to find her in a local care home. She was estranged from a nephew, the only member of her family left. By the time I got to visit her she was very deaf and had dementia so could not understand who I was or why I was there. We held hands instead.

Ivy died a few months ago and we learned from her lawyer that Ivy had planned her funeral, chosen her hymns, and even sending a car to the care home to pick up any staff who’d like to come. I think about 8 members of staff came which was pretty impressive, I thought. The only other people there were members of Christ Church, many of whom had never met her but knew her name from the prayer list. Usually at a funeral my homily tells the story of the deceased for it is there we learn all the things we wish we’d known before they died. I do this in the hope that we do tell the stories before its too late. But sadly, for Ivy there was little information. And even better, the stories we did have all conflicted with one another. One story was that she had lost her hearing during the war. Another that she had contracted measles as a youngster which left her deaf. Another that she inherited it from her mother. And her parents died either in a plane crash, or on holiday, or when they moved to Falkirk. I think Ivy enjoyed telling stories. And I’m told she did it well.

Later the lawyer contacted us to say that Ivy had left all her money to Christ Church. Ivy loved her church and I think it became her family. She had no children of her own and she felt that the relatives she did have were only ‘friendly’ because they wanted her money. Ivy was very fond of a previous Rector and knew that if it weren’t for the church she wouldn’t have any friends at all. The lawyer did tell us that it probably wouldn’t amount to very much. Ivy didn’t own her own home so it would be just savings after all the other agencies had their cut.  The lawyer also said that there some personal effects which were to come to us.

So this week, before the Vestry meeting, we gathered to look through the contents of an old suitcase and a large brown box. It was full of VladimirTretchikoffChineseGpaintings which were done by Ivy’s late husband. Mostly they were copies of other paintings, including a ‘Renoir’ and the ‘blue lady’. But there were also some of flowers and landscapes. One of the portraits had us guessing who Masel was until someone pointed out it was a self-portrait. (Get it?!) There was also an album of cigarette cards, full sets. And an album of photos and cuttings from the newspapers of events that obviously meant something to her. And of course, there was a photograph album and that is the saddest thing of all. We don’t know who the people are and it seems so hard to just throw them away. The paintings can be sold at the summer fair, the cigarette cards perhaps sold, but the photos which tell Ivy’s story lie on the meeting room table waiting their fate.

Any suggestions what to do with them?

So today while the country focuses on a very large funeral which costs a lot of dosh, let us think of Ivy. A woman who was someone in her day and ended up with dementia. By circumstances alone, Ivy ended up alone with just a few visitors and a few mourners. I wish I’d known her before she became bewildered. May she rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.

Who cares about the elderly and alone?

I worry about the elderly. I especially worry about some of the elderly in my own little flock. I worry about the ones who have no family.

My own grandparents had children to care for them when they became frail. None of the children lived too far, or if they did they visited regularly and kept in touch. Grandchildren visited often – often against their will it has to be said, but that’s another story. We didn’t have a choice in the good old days.

But what of the elderly who have no children?  In the past month I’ve had dealings with two such people. One was a lady who had no relatives except a distant nephew from whom she was estranged. She had dementia and was in a care home. I visited her but she had no idea who I was and it was difficult to find out any of her story because she was confused and gave all sorts of variations.  Her family had all died in a plane crash, or all died at sea – one of the two, she told me. And then people at church would tell me her family lived in Falkirk all their lives! She had made arrangements for her funeral though, although nobody knew this until after she died. The only people at the Crematorium were carers from the Home and some members of Christ Church. There was little story to be told of her life and loves. Known to God alone.

The other person is a lady from Christ Church who is in hospital at the moment. She lives in a rather nice Abbeyfield Home near the church where she says nobody talks to her. At 93 she knows her memory is going and she gets forgetful, but she always has a smile and a mischievous look in her eyes. Last year she told me some hair-raising stories about her time during the war in Egypt. Her beloved husband is dead and she has no other family. Last week she had a fall and broke her pelvis so is in our brand, new lovely hospital. There she lies in a room on her own, not really knowing what is going on because her doctor is a ‘foreign gentleman’ and she couldn’t hear what he was saying.  Since her admission she has gone down hill rapidly and visitors now tell me she is unresponsive and almost unconscious. Nurses tell them it is just because she is on heavy pain medication. Our little flock are great at looking out for her and have brought her flowers, sweeties, magazines, cards, fruit and toiletries. They all lie around her unopened. When I visited her on Sunday the nurse roused her and she muttered “Oh I’m so glad to see you!” before lapsing back into a deep sleep holding tight to my hand.

I sat with her for a while, praying and watching. Sometimes that is all we can do. I glanced at her charts lying on the window sill where it says Alert every day. Alert? Visitors for the past seven days have found her asleep and unable to be roused. When is she alert? First thing in the morning? A nurse brings in a drip of fluids but because I am saying the Lord’s Prayer she backs out again, never to be found again. I ask other nurses if I can speak to someone about her but her named nurse is busy elsewhere. I wait for 30 minutes before I have to leave.

So I am left worrying about my little poppet lying in bed with no family to enquire about her. Several times I’ve tried to find a nurse to speak to but have been unable. Phone calls all elicit the same response – “She’s doing fine, very well.”  Her next-of-kin is listed as a woman nobody knows. I worry and I don’t know what to do.  How awful to be alone with nobody to speak up for you, nobody to tell her story, nobody to tell the medical staff what she is like, nobody to tell them that she doesn’t like potatoes or chicken but she loves cakes and a wee glass of wine.

As clergy we used to be able to wander hither and thither in hospital, our dog collars gaining us entry to wards at any time of the day or night. That is not the case any more. Ward doors are locked and buzzers seldom answered. “Lunch time is protected time for the patients” I’m told.  “But I could help to feed them while the food is still warm,” I mutter to frosty faces. Many times I’ve had to give up on visiting because I couldn’t gain access to the ward and couldn’t come at the visiting times.

Any clergy out there found a way around this?  I guess I should be trying to find the Chaplain.


Server for over 70 years hangs up his cotta

This week I received a very sad letter from one of my altar servers. He tells me that he must give up serving at Our Lord’s Table because his wife has dementia and he feels that he must sit with her because she loses her place in the service and gets frustrated and then embarrassed. He explains that now he must sit with her because he is indebted to her for sharing 61 years of marriage.  He also believes that Our Lord, to whom he speaks frequently, is aware of his situation and will accept his decision.

A server for over 70 years, a faithful soul who never turns up late, helps other new servers in training, and administers the chalice with love and devotion. A server who never makes a fuss, and who clearly is devoted to Our Lord.

I don’t mind telling you that I wept when I read his letter because I know how much serving means to him. But what love and devotion this man shows. We can all learn from him.


Malcolm Goldsmith RIP

I heard this week that the Rev’d Malcolm Goldsmith had died. I knew that he hadn’t been well for a while but it still came as a surprise.

I first came across Malcolm via a little book that he wrote when he was at St John’s Princes Street. I picked it up in the Cornerstone Bookshop is those days when you went in and the staff had the banter ready and could persuade you to buy a bagful of books before you remembered what you’d gone in for. This book was called Knowing Me Knowing God and explored your spirituality with Myers-Briggs. It was a revelation for me because I learned that ENFPs sometimes struggle with prayer – no kidding! I’ve used material from this little book in lots of groups who have also found it to be a revelation.

Then I met Malcolm when he shared his wisdom about Dementia and Spirituality. I’m afraid to say I don’t remember exactly why this was one of his passions, but perhaps a reader out there will know. You may know that my father has dementia and for the past 11 years I have been visiting him and others in my little flocks and found Malcolm’s insights really helpful. Then he wrote Strange Land which was one of those books that you want to share with the whole world. It was such an easy read but really helpful for thinking about how we in the church pastor to people with dementia.

Then last year a group of clergy met monthly to discuss issues that concerned us with Malcolm and his pal Michael at the helm. His experience and insights were always worth listening to and my respect for him grew. He was kind, a good listener, and eternally cheerful.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Don’t abandon me…

I found this quote this morning in the Faith in Older People summer newsletter. As I often visit people with Alzheimers and have a father with dementia, it is giving me food for thought. Especially the last bit.  (Not the cartoon!)

Where does this journey begin and at what stage can you deny me my selfhood and my spirituality? As I lose my identity in the world around me, which is so anxious to define me by what I say or do and say rather than who I am, I can seek an identity by simply being me, a person created in the image of God. My spiritual self is reflected in the divine and given meaning as a transcendent being.

As I travel towards the dissolution of myself, my personality, my very ‘essence’, my relationship with God needs increasing support from you, my other in the body of Christ. Don’t abandon me at any stage… sing alongside me, touch me, pray with me, reassure me of your presence… I may not be able to affirm you, to remember who you are or whether you have visited me. But you have brought Christ to me. If I enjoy your visit, why must I remember it? Why must I remember who you are? Is it to satisfy your OWN need for identity? If I forget a pleasant memory it does not mean it was not important to me.

These are the words of Christian Bryden, an Australian with Alzheimer’s who spoke at a conference in 2002

Still Alice

Still AliceAnother book I picked up in a charity shop, I think, and what a find!  It tells the story of Alice, university professor, wife and mother, who at the age of 50 finds out she has early onset Alzheimers.  I reckon it must be a pretty accurate account of what it feels like to have the disease and how frightening it must be. However, the author doesn’t dwell on the negative too much and there are some poignant moments. What it does do, though, is tell the story from Alice’s point of view and how she plans to do so much while she is able and what plans she has for her future. It also shows what it is like for the family living with a mother who gradually forgets who they are.

A must read and one of our next Book Group choices.

Happy Birthday Papa

Didn’t manage to get over to see Dad till tonight for his birthday, and just missed the rest of the family by 5 minutes. But he was delighted, as ever, with his gift of gin and fags. He’s so easily pleased!

Took in Mum’s eulogy which had to be severely curtailed at the Crem because we were late. He enjoyed reading it and we had a look at some old photos too. He could remember lots of people in them that I didn’t know. Mind you he couldn’t remember what my sister had given him 10 minutes earlier! Ah the joys of dementia!

13 for Compline tonight. Word must be spreading. It’s THE place to be in Portie this Holy Week.