HAVE you been into a severe dementia unit before?’ the care home manager asked me as we ascended the stairs of a ‘possible’ home for my elderly and frail mother, recently released from a geriatric psychiatric unit – if only they would take her. ‘You understand the doors are always locked. But relatives are given the pass code and can come and go as they please.’ With that she punched in the numbers and pushed open the door into another world.

A carpeted corridor extended before me with upholstered ‘banquettes’ at intervals and seating nooks at each corridor corner. Strolling its length and arm in arm, two very elderly but upright gentlemen advanced towards me, smiling, eager to meet and greet. Nothing could have been more reassuring. For elsewhere, looking through the open doors into residents’ rooms and seated on the benches between carers I saw other souls far less mobile, much more broken physically and mentally, some apparently totally lost to this world, others repetitively calling, struggling to communicate and make sense.

Alex and Jonathan (not their real names) sold it to me. They were to become ‘my’ gentlemen. These two men, for all their loss of memory and power of speech, have made this ‘Home’ feel like a small community for me whenever I go there. If they were there in sight, walking up and down in their mutual companionship, when I arrived it made everything feel so much better. And with each visit in this last year that my mother has been there I have got to know them. Unfailingly, in the midst of this world of buckled bodies and mangled minds, they have guaranteed me a warm welcome. Sometimes a hug and always a hand hold. They almost felt like my own father.

At meal times I have watched Jonathan painstakingly help others less able with their food, encouraging the newly arrived (traumatised by not knowing what is going on or where they are) to eat, gently lifting forks of food to their mouths. Never upset when they brushed him off or turned their faces away – he knew he had tried. And you could see that the trying was important to him. Whatever the rebuff, dementia did nothing to dent his ingrained good manners.

In the last year there’s barely been a visit when their pleasure at seeing me did not cheer me and help with something that can feel like an ordeal. My gents made all the difference to me. I was so happy for mum, too, that they were there, so happy that Alex will come into her room to sit on her bed and have a ‘conversation’ with her communicating, at the least, his desire to communicate. I pray he still does now. Now that he is walking the corridor alone.

For when I arrived to see mum this last weekend the atmosphere was different; my arm-in-arm gents weren’t there to greet me. It felt quiet. Even normally noisy Alan in his wheelchair seemed subdued. I saw that Alex’s wife had come to visit. But where was Jonathan, I asked? Pause. ‘He died last week,’ the lovely young (Spanish lawyer) carer told me. He was not my relative, but I struggled not to cry.

I was not his only admirer. All the carers were too, she told me. And she told me what I had not known. Right up to the end he’d shaved and dressed himself every day. All 97 years. He might have lost his memory but he never lost his mind. They will miss him.

I met one of his sons on the last visit. He should be so proud. His father ‘gave’ to the end. He spread humanity in the home; making dementia more possible for the rest of us – his co-residents, the carers and the relatives alike – to cope with or endure. He proved that even with severe dementia that is possible to do. He was a shining light.

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