Wearing Blue for Betty

Betty with her two sisters and my mum. (Left to right: Jean, mum, Myra and Betty)
Betty with her two sisters and my mum. (Left to right: Jean, mum, Myra and Betty)

On 5 November 2015 my Auntie Betty died. She was 87, lived in a nursing home and had lived with dementia for many years. I realised in the difficult first weeks following her death, how much Betty changed my perception of dementia over the years; what a positive view she presented of what is so often dubbed a cruel disease, a disease that steals life away … I am glad no one has trailed out one of those tired and untrue phrases such as ‘it’s probably for the best’ because I don’t see it that way at all.

Betty’s life was not stolen by dementia. She continued to live, to communicate, though she could verbalise very little, and to enjoy life. This is not the view of dementia that we see yet Betty has proven that it is possible to continue to be yourself, to make the most of life, to grasp the care that is offered and keep on living. She surprised us all when she died as she had been so well; smiling, interacting, being part of life. The time from rapidly failing health to death was quick, she did not suffer and was peaceful at the end.

The Betty I had always known was very much there to the end, regardless of dementia; it did not define her and it was not all she was. She was a sister, an aunt, a great aunt and a great great aunt. She lived and worked in Inverness as a civil servant. Betty could knit like no one else I have ever known; Fair Isle knits, any kind of complex knit you could ask of her. If she was growing up in current times, she could have made a fortune. She was, for many, many years, a Brownie Guide Leader and gave herself fully and enthusiastically to the role. A calm person, a quiet person, a private person, yet she was able to hold the attention of countless young girls over the years; some, no doubt, wished she was their auntie and I feel lucky that she was mine. Betty learned to drive at a time when few owned cars, fewer less young single women. She owned and drove a car for years – for as long as I can remember a mini, dubbed ;The Min’. Betty loved her cars and, assumably, the independence that went with them; she was devastated to have to stop driving when the early stages of dementia forced her hand. She moved from Aberdeen to Inverness to pursue her career in the Civil Service; again, unusual for a young woman in those times.

After her retirement, Betty moved back to Aberdeen and lived with her two sisters, Myra and Jean. The three of them shared holidays and interests, from bowling to the Girl Guiding Movement, to crafts, to walking; they were always active. I wonder now how difficult it was for Betty to move back ‘home’; she had carved her own life in Inverness through her work, had her own friendships and life there. When the flat ‘the aunties’ lived in was cleared at the point when Jean, the eldest, also moved into Angusfield House Care Home, we found all Betty’s retirement cards. There were so many and the affection toward her, the respect for this quiet woman, was clear to see.

To me, Betty was always there. She was one of those people who, perhaps, was more in the background, yet that gave a sense of safety, security and I hope I never took it for granted. She loved her family deeply. I have a memory that brings a lump to my throat very time I think of it, which was when I took her sister, Jean, to see her last February. Jean had been unwell and unable to visit Betty at the care home though, previously, she had visited several times a week. When Jean went into the lounge and sat down, the two sisters looked at each other and grinned; Betty said a few words – simple and evocative; ‘Jean, Jean’. She was so obviously pleased to see her sister and there was absolutely no doubt she knew who Jean was despite not seeing her for about six months.

Was Betty just lucky? Did she happen to have a contented dementia that is denied others? I don’t think so. I believe there are a number of factors that contributed, though I do accept such contented dementia is not evident for all, whatever their circumstances. One was continued family support and contact, primarily from her elder sister, Jean, who carried on visiting regularly until her own health prevented this. The rest of us visited too but, living in England, whilst Betty lived in Aberdeen meant that, though visits were regular, they were rather more spread out. (It is possibly easier and cheaper to get to Spain than Aberdeen) Then there was the care and love Betty received at the home she lived; Angusfield House Care Home in Aberdeen. She had gone from home to hospital as her health declined some four years ago; when she emerged from hospital to the home we all feared the worst as she was so frail and ‘switched off’. Angusfield nourished her in all manner of ways. As well as having good food and staff with the time and patience to feed her (Betty had always eaten slowly), they realised quite quickly that she would be better off in the downstairs part of the home rather than the ‘Dementia Unit’. This proved to be an inspired move; Betty slowly came alive again, began smiling and being part of things; it was a wonderful transformation. Each time I visited, she looked stronger somehow and was taking her place in life and living it. The last time I saw her was just a few weeks before she died; she had been smiling, holding my hand, alert and very much part of life at the home. The affection for her from the staff at the home was evident; I could see they enjoyed engaging with her, celebrated every small part she grasped in her life.

When I got the phone call telling me that Betty was very ill it was hard to compute with how she had been, hard to remember that she was, despite how well she had seemed, frail and vulnerable due to her advanced dementia. I had been on alert due to Jean, Betty’s sister, having been so unwell, expecting and dreading the phone call saying she had deteriorated, or worse, yet here was a call about Betty; it was hard to take. I knew, from the gentle yet honest way the staff members spoke to me that there was no hope of improvement; Betty’s end was close. Today, I am sitting finalising this writing the day before her funeral; arrangements are made, announcements out, plans in place … I have visited Jean at the home several times, we have cried together, we have reminisced; it is so strange to be there and for there to be no Betty who had become so part of the place. It was, without any doubt, her home and, I admit, I never imagined I would say that. I have worked as an advocate with older people living in many residential care homes and I don’t remember one where it seemed it was their home; it is good to have had my view changed.

Why ‘Wearing Blue for Betty’? Simple really, blue was her favourite colour and I have been wearing something blue in her memory and in honour of this lovely, special auntie, ever since she died. It signifies her life, her as a whole person, everything that she was. It is a reminder that dementia did not steal her, or her life, from either her or others who loved her. I am wearing blue for Betty and I am proud to have known her; I am humbled by her dignity, her quiet determination, and how she lived with dementia.

Betty at Angusfield House Care Home February 2015
Betty at Angusfield House Care Home February 2015

© Liz MacKenzie

Inspiring days out

Today I have visited the Falkirk Wheel and The Kelpies, about 15 miles outside Edinburgh. The Falkirk Wheel is one of those places I have been wanting to visit since someone told me about some years ago. More recently, a colleague visited and also mentioned The Kelpies and I was determined that, this time, I would visit. These two poems were written on my return to base; not polished but fresh from the visits.


Falkirk Wheel

A breath, caught in gentle
Almost imperceptible movement.
Vista deceives as walls move
Rotate through air.

Water rushes, but soft,
Faint; unnoticed protection
As we climb without effort
Where seagulls care.

The Falkirk Wheel; majestic
Proud heart beating
Turning, cheating senses
With gondola dare.


Not the Angel of the North

Not the Angel of the North
These dominant beasts,
Nor mythical loch spirit rising

Imposing they stand, lifting
And dipping, they speak wordlessly
A message of peace and strength

How do they, motionless
Bring together community?
Go visit, and see.

The Kelpies, their magnitude
Captivates and draws forth
The folk to think.

So, no; not the Angel of the North
Yet a more northerly pair
Of equine angels.

Speaking up for self advocacy

Throughout my career I have supported others; the focus has been that of enabling others to gain the skills, confidence and strength to help themselves. It has been a process of standing in the background so that others can shine, can move their lives forward in their way and at their pace. One group I worked with prior to my semi-retirement, was a group of people with learning disabilities who supported themselves and others with learning disabilities to improve their lives and speak up about the things that matter to them. Funding, or lack thereof, is always a challenge. The group decided some years back that, to ensure they were an entirely independent group, they needed to seek ways to find their own funding, through grants and fundraising, rather than relying on local authorities to fund them. I admire their determination to stick to those values, which mean that they can work to their own agenda, not that of the local authorities. Financial downturn, cuts, increased competition for grants all threaten their existence, yet they are still ‘alive’ after more than 27 years. They have survived numerous barriers but still battle on because of their belief in what they do and the benefit to their own lives and that of others. What works so well is the way that the group understand how to cooperate and work as a team, and their shared understanding of what it is like to live with a learning disability. Every now and again they need to reach out for support; now is one of those times. Self advocacy does ‘what is says on the tin’; it is about groups of people, usually with learning disabilities, speaking up for and striving for their rights in society. Self Advocacy in Action takes pride in enabling people with learning disabilities to be more independent and to have more control in their lives. To continue to do this they need your help.
“We are asking people to donate towards our running and project costs to allow us to continue to support people with learning disabilities to have more choice and control in their lives. We support people through self advocacy sessions, independence training, activities and much more…”
Crowdfunder is a tool for fundraising for voluntary and community organisations. It helps community groups, charities and social enterprises to raise funds from the community around them. To find out more about how Self Advocacy in Action will use these funds or to donate, please visit Self Advocacy in Action’s profile on Crowdfunder.
http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/self-advocacy-in-action or visit them @selfadvocacy87

I forget …

I wrote this poem after that dreadful moment when you take your pet to be ‘put down’ at the vet. The decision to do this was not taken lightly and was one of those heart-wrenching moments where you keep questioning and questioning whether it is the right thing to do. I look back now and know it was but still remember that feeling.

I forget ..

I forget that I took the dog
On Friday to the vet
I think I hear him tippy-tap
The hallway to be met.

I forget when I notice that
His water bowl is dry
Though sometimes I forgot anyway,
He never moaned or cried.

Who was this dog anyway?
Did he know his life was done?
To us he was just good old Floyd
We loved, we shouted at
Who’s gone …

©Liz MacKenzie

Serious thoughts on milk and food generally

I am following current media coverage regarding the amount that UK farmers are paid for a pint of milk (it’s probably a litre these days). It strikes me as a reflection on the embedded ways in which we (and I do include myself) think about food and drink, and its cost. How many times do you look for the so-called BOGOFFS? (Buy One Get One Free) How many times are you drawn to something because of its price rather than a specific desire for it, or its quality? It is now endemic to our culture that we want everything on the cheap, forgetting that food, drink and its production is not a cheap process? Are some of the people complaining about people coming to this country and ‘taking our jobs’ (and this does not include me) the very same people who want this cheap food and who are, therefore, accepting the possibility that those same people are doing the cheap labour that makes the cheap food wheel keep turning? It is not a single layered issue.

The supermarkets are driving down costs at a price; that price is quality, fair pay and massive amounts of food waste. Do we simply blame the supermarkets and continue to seek out those offers or do we do something about it, as individuals and communities. It is all too easy to believe that we can have no impact on the supermarket giants and conclude, “what’s the point?”

The Starfish Parable is a good story to remember when feeling like this. It tells of the man walking along the beach who observes a boy picking up starfish and returning them to the sea. His was a ‘what is the point?’ question; the boy would never save them all so, in effect, why bother. The boy’s response is humbling; as he threw a starfish far into the sea he replied that he had saved that one. Maybe something to remember as we do our food shopping? One person alone may not be able to change the way the supermarket giants operate but they can change their own habits and influence change in others.

The move toward localism as it has been dubbed is leading the way, encouraging us to shop local, support local farmers, growers and producers. It is certainly worth looking at and I am often surprised that shopping at my local farmer’s market does not, in fact, turn out to be a costly exercise. Added to that the significant increase in quality, actually meeting the producers and having that sense of community makes a real difference, as does finding that local shop that bakes and sells its own bread and rediscovering how bread should really taste.

Whatever we do from hereon in will affect not only our own futures but that of the next generation. It is worth remembering that, sometimes, offers really are just too good to be true.

Inspiration from the natural world

This is an unpolished and unedited poem – but, sometimes, they are better like that. Inspired by a Norfolk sunset.

August Sunset

Early August sunset peeped cheekily

Through trees, closing her eyes

To day’s pleasures.

Sleep drenched night owl

Blinked, considering night’s feast

And chattering children slowly wound down

With stories and teddy bears.

Velvet darkness crept unnoticed

Starlight a string of fairy lights;

Christmas come early.

Adults leant to wine glasses

Drinking in the peace

Day’s happiness a cloak

As evening’s chill settled.

Early August sunset

A smile on my skin.

© Liz MacKenzie

Twitter as stream of consciousness …

One of the suggestions made to writers/ would be writers is to write every day using a ‘stream of consciousness’ approach; i.e. writing whatever comes into your head without editing it. (Bit like going to see Freud without the talking, the couch and the odd man standing behind it making weird and unlikely pronouncements) The aim, as I understand it, is to see what emerges from those unrestrained thoughts – you generally end up not using most of it for any kind of serious writing but, occasionally, a gem comes along and off you go.

As I posted a thought on Twitter today; “Wonder if it’s a bit posh eating Pom Bears from bowl? Was sharing & only 1 pack left. William Morris tablecloth too”, I IMG_1937wondered if Twitter was providing a means through which to effect a modern day stream of consciousness? I am not suggesting that a best selling novel is about to emerge from the poshness of Pom Bears from a bowl (possibly a great title though?) but never say never. What is interesting, as a writer, is that my dialogue, stream of consciousness or what you will, becomes interlinked with that of others as people add their thoughts to my own and we become streams of consciousness.

I shall continue with my experiment and see what emerges; could be a heap of senseless words without connection or relevance, or could be my next creative writing piece. Watch this space.