My Dad’s a Goldfish – Doing the mash up

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I’d only turned my back for a minute to take something out of the fridge. By the time I crossed the kitchen floor it was to see the Goldfish, very carefully pouring his glass of orange juice over his meat and potatoes.

All the rules about what never say to someone with dementia went out the window. “What are you doing? Why did you do that? Your dinner is ruined.”

He looked baffled – and hurt. He may have known why he did it but even so, he wasn’t able to explain. Perhaps he thought the orange juice was gravy or a sauce. Maybe, he just didn’t fancy what was on his plate and the orange juice was a deliberate act of protest?

I always said we were very lucky the Goldfish never lost his appetite but we did go through some strange and often difficult phases at mealtimes. The swallowing problem I already wrote about in my last post. There was also the mashing phase.

The Goldfish liked to mash his potatoes into the gravy on his plate. Fine, I do, too, but for a time he mashed endlessly. He’d mash and mash. No amount of encouragement or persuasion would persuade him to stop. The food not only soon looked pretty unappetising, it was stone cold. It took me a time to understand he had forgotten what to do next, forgotten how to use cutlery – so he carried on mashing.

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A good plate of Scottish mince and tatties – unmashed. Not going to show the horrible mashed up version.

He was not yet at the stage when he required (or would accept) spoon-feeding but he’d soon lose weight if I didn’t get him eating. Finger food worked. I gave him sandwiches, toast, cheese and biscuits – anything he could pick up and eat without having to use a fork or a spoon. The memory of how to use cutlery came back quite soon, thankfully, and the mashing stopped.

The false teeth popping in and out, was another phase we lived through for a while. He had a top set – the bottom teeth were his own – which he could somehow push with his tongue until they sort of hung out of over his bottom lip. Then, he’d do another manoeuvre which made the dentures pop back into his mouth again. It wasn’t pretty. Nor was his habit of removing the dentures when food got stuck under the plate and handing them to me to rinse under the tap. I’m a little bit squeamish about false teeth – dread the day I might need them – but, hey, I survived.

Sometimes, even without the mashing and the dancing dentures, mealtimes seemed to take forever. The purchase of a thermos plate helped. It had a compartment underneath which could be filled with hot water to keep the food warm whether we were going through the mashing stage or, most often, simply because the Goldfish ate very, very slowly.

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Ice cream was always a favourite but the Goldfish was never averse to anything sweet

Put a dish of ice cream or bread and butter pudding (topped with cream), chocolate mousse, apple pie and custard and it vanished like lightning. Occasionally, I felt a bit guilty about the amount of puddings the Goldfish devoured. I have to admit, his diet was not always well balanced. His very lovely GP was reassuring, telling me that as the Goldfish was almost 90 and approaching the last stages of dementia he could eat whatever he wanted to eat.

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My Dad’s a Goldfish – to swallow or not to swallow?

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After the Goldfish started attending the new sensory day centre I attended several training sessions for carers. These included how to deal with dental hygiene, problems with swallowing and loss of appetite. The latter has never been a problem for the Goldfish, whose appetite remains, mostly, undiminished.

I was keen to learn what to do when the Goldfish couldn’t swallow. This problem – dysphagia is its medical term – comes and goes and I could never work out why some days he could swallow and other days he couldn’t. It’s both frustrating and scary. The speech and language person had been to see him and I was aware of what foods to avoid but that doesn’t help when something which went down wonderfully one day, is stored in his mouth another.

One morning, I had to fish about half a slice of breakfast toast out of his mouth. I cut his lunchtime sandwich into tiny squares but realised when I took him to visit a friend he still had them all in his mouth. The friend has dogs, which was partly why we were going, because the Goldfish loves to be able to pat a dog but he had lost all enthusiasm and sat in his wheelchair with a vacant expression. The friend produced tea and biscuits but the Goldfish remained disinterested – which was when I realised his mouth was already still full of sandwich. He could not swallow so no wonder he couldn’t be enthusiastic about the dogs or the shortbread on offer.

I didn’t feel able to start fishing about in his mouth while were in someone else’s house. It didn’t seem polite behaviour. It was not a successful visit. Once home, I managed to extract the sandwich mush. I cooked dinner but he, perhaps not surprisingly, didn’t eat any. Later in the evening, the swallow reflex returned and the Goldfish perked up. He had toast and honey and a banana – and a wee dram of whisky. There was a referendum debate (Scottish independence) on television and he seemed to follow it with some interest. He smiled and nodded whenever Alex Salmond was speaking!

I was, therefore, very keen to learn how to help the swallow reflex kick in. It sounded easy. Stroke downwards over the person’s cheek and he/she will swallow. Hah! When I tried it next time the Goldfish couldn’t swallow, it didn’t work. I stroked harder. Still no result. I tried touching his bottom lip with a cold spoon – no result. Frustrated and tired I sat back yawning. The Goldfish yawned back at me – and swallowed!

Main lesson to remember – every single person with dementia is different and what works for one might not work for another. And what works on one occasion may not work next time.