Christmas parties in a dementia home are something else. About thirty people gathered in a festively decorated room, a mixture of residents, family and friends. A Christmas CD of pop songs plays on a loop, which means those of us with any memory left are gritting our teeth after an hour or so.
We sit in a semi-circle, as though auditioning for a new Beckett play. No script, just people mumbling the lines which only they understand. Crackers are pulled and hats and bad jokes extracted. Mum balances her hat on her head, we’ve always had larger heads than the cracker hats. Reminds me of my time in the High Dependency Unit a couple of years ago, when they tried to get me to wear a hat and eat a full Christmas lunch. It was an attempt at normality but I’ve never liked the paper hat and was certainly not going to wear one while in the antechamber of eternity.
A tall man dressed as an elf enters with a saxophone and begins to play, rather well. K, behind, puts his fingers in his ears. That’s the other thing about dementia, very little of the social graces remain with some people. He plays very well, but I wonder what the residents make of it.
Then a marvellous spread of Christmas food: poached salmon, cheese and celery, little cakes. The residents fall on this with delight, even though they had a full Christmas dinner at lunch time. The loss of memory seems to include eating too, Mum often puts her knife and fork down and asks when she’s going to eat her lunch.
It’s a lovely afternoon, filled with half memories of carols and Christmases past, families and friends often leave the room to shed a tear in mourning of the life that no longer exists with their loved ones.
The unpredictable is always present. Mum eats her way through several mince pies, which she would never have touched before. Another resident complains that the mulled wine is mysteriously disappearing from her glass. Families can be odd too. A daughter hearing us speak French asks whether we always speak French when we’ve had too much to drink. I wonder at first if she’s a resident, in which case all bets are off in terms of behaviour, but she’s definitely a middle-aged daughter. I look puzzled. She elaborates, ‘is it the mulled wine making you speak French?’ Mum giggles, I reply with a straight face that we always speak French, drunk or sober.
‘How odd’ the daughter replies.’ Um, we are French’. Cue puzzled shrug from the daughter.