69 year old Paul from Helensburgh shares fond memories of his friend Jim, who passed away with dementia in November last year.
I met Jim on my first day at my new primary school, St Laurence’s. We’d have been about 7 at the time. It was back in the 1950s when the new schemes were being built and folks from all the old tenements were being resettled.
Jim had been in the school for a while but it was my first day and there I was standing alone in the middle of the playground, not knowing anyone and Jim just walked up to me and asked if I wanted to play. That just sums Jim up perfectly – he was a really friendly guy and always had time for people. So that was that and we were firm friends from there on in.
Jim left school when he was 16 and joined what was then the Post Office Telecommunications, which became BT. I stayed on at school and went to the University of Glasgow to study physics. We were both still living in Glasgow and remained firm friends. We’d sneak Jim into the Student Union on a studious student’s membership card – the student would spend his nights studying while Jim made the most of his Union membership!
After university I moved about a bit. I worked in Manchester for a while and then I was up in Aberdeen to continue my studies. I never lost contact with Jim and whenever I was back in Glasgow I’d always meet up with him. I think because he stayed in Glasgow he was a bit of a hub of information. Everyone kept in touch with Jim so he knew who was doing what, who’d got married, who’d had children and everything, so you could catch up with Jim and find out what everyone else was doing too. All in all our families would probably meet up a few times a year and although we didn’t see each other that often we were still very close. My girls are friends with his daughters and our wives get on too.
Then suddenly Jim seemed to disappear off the map. I’d get in touch and leave messages on their phone and nobody would get back to us, which was very out of character. At one point, my daughter phoned Jim and Margaret’s house to get new contact details for their daughter, Rosemary, and when she phoned she got through to Jim who said that he didn’t know Rosemary’s phone number or where to find it and asked her to call back when his wife, Margaret, was home. This raised a bit of a flag with my daughter and she phoned us immediately to see if we knew if anything was up with Jim.
A short while later my wife Pat and I were driving through Duntocher and we spotted Jim out walking so we stopped the car for a chat. He told us that he was walking to the golf club because he didn’t drive anymore, but he didn’t say more than that. Shortly after that we managed to pin Jim and Margaret down for a lunch. It was at that lunch that Jim’s wife Margaret told my wife Pat that Jim had been diagnosed with dementia. Suddenly all the things that had happened before made sense.
Jim and Margaret never said anything explicitly to us about how they felt after the diagnosis, but I think they maybe shied away a bit from social situations because they didn’t want to be a burden or they were maybe a bit embarrassed to say about Jim’s diagnosis, but going through that alone would be the last thing in the world we would have wanted for our friends. Once we knew what the situation was we started seeing them again quite regularly and meeting up for lunch and walks and things like that.
I think it was probably in 2015 that Jim moved into residential care. He was needing round the clock support and Margret just couldn’t do that alone. After he moved into the care home I did still go and see him regularly but it was very difficult to keep the conversation going. Because of his dementia Jim didn’t have much interest in current affairs or what was going on. We’d talk about the same stories round in circles a bit but then it would be hard to think of anything else to say.
It was around about this time that my brother-in-law mentioned the Alzheimer Scotland allotment. He was with the Council and had been working with the charity to make it easier to access the allotment from the road. He’d heard that they were looking for volunteers to help out with the allotment. I’m a keen gardener so I was really keen to see what I could do to help out. It also turned out that the allotment was right across the road from the care home that Jim was in. Jim hadn’t been much of a gardener himself, but I began taking him across to the allotment every Thursday. It was definitely the best decision I made. All the people at the allotment, volunteers, people with dementia and staff – became a really close wee community. Jim went from not caring much about gardening to becoming a bit of a gardening bore! Jim’s daughter, Louise, is a primary school teacher and she was able to get the kids from the primary school involved too, which was really nice.
So every Thursday I would go and collect Jim from the home. The staff would have him all ready in his special “allotment trainers” that his wife bought specially for him in New York when she was able to get away for a wee holiday. Jim was so proud of those trainers! When I picked him up we’d always have a week joke that we were off to the allotment to dig an escape tunnel and that we weren’t coming back! In that last 18 months of his life, I saw Jim far more than I’d ever seen him since our school days. I’d see him every week at the allotment, or if the weather wasn’t great a group of us would go to a nearby café. I think it was important for Jim to be able to get out and do something different. He really enjoyed those Thursday outings, even if it was just for a couple of hours. I like to think that that regular one day a week where I was seeing Jim gave his wife a bit of a break and that she knew she had that day free to do what she wanted to do.
Sadly, last August Jim’s condition deteriorated. He became very distressed and agitated and the staff at the care home couldn’t look after him anymore so he was moved to a secure ward in Gartnavel Hospital. He was there for about 4 months and my wife and I still visited him every week. I think he always recognised us, even if it was just for a few seconds for each visit that you would see that glimpse of recognition or understanding in his eyes. It was hard to see Jim like that but I’m glad I kept going to see him.
Last autumn Jim was moved back into a care home when his condition deteriorated further. I went to see him for the last time and he passed away two days after my last visit.
One of the things I’ve learnt from this experience is that you can’t force your friends to take you up on offers of support, or make them tell you when something is wrong, but you can remind them that you are there for them whenever they decide that they need you. You can’t force your friendship on someone or make their choices for them but it’s good to offer a gentle reminder that you’re thinking about them and that you’re here.
I’ve continued to be involved with Alzheimer Scotland and still volunteer with the allotment, and the singing groups and we’re even setting up some new Health Walks this year.