Helen Cowan tells her story of God’s grace in a very taxing situation
I’m married to Chris and have three grown-up children.
I have always had a special relationship with my Aunty Dorothy, spending every summer visiting her in Northumberland, very close to some of the most scenic parts of Hadrian’s Wall. She had never married and lived alone with her cat Marley for company – a very independent and extremely feisty woman.
Five years ago, in her mid-80s, it became obvious she was struggling to cope living on her own. She had developed dementia.
We managed her care for a period, from a distance with regular visits, but in 2010 a doctor told us she was frail and unlikely to survive another winter. My husband and I decided that I needed to go and stay with her to give full-time care. If this was to be her last year, we would at least try to give her the very best quality of life.
This was a sacrifice for my husband. I took a career break from my job in the library. I loved Aunty, and enjoyed being with her. I thought it would be fine. I would cope just great. In July 2010 I went North. God knew that as I went up there I was going to learn just what ‘caring’ for someone is like. Nothing and no amount of theory or love can prepare you for living with dementia.
Most of us joke about not remembering things and I’m sure many of us have moments of forgetfulness. But my aunt had no short term memory. It didn‘t take many days into her care to realize that her asking and me repeating myself 30 times an hour all day every day was not easy – especially when the questions were always the same.
The days dragged, and by 2pm I would think, ‘only eight hours before bed’. They were long afternoons and evenings. It was the most mentally exhausting, frustrating, torturous experience I had ever had. There were days the mental pressure would be so intense I felt as if my head would explode. I would escape to the bathroom and cry and plead with God to rescue me and help me. He did.
I walked my frustration out in the streets around the town. I went down to the river and reminded myself that God leads me by quiet waters. This would restore me. Sometimes I was invited in to a home for a drink and some normal conversation. I was surrounded by hills and wonderful scenery. Every day when I went shopping I thought of the passage that says my help comes from the Lord who created all this. And there were times when somehow I just got through, hour by hour.
My family, friends and fellowship were a tremendous support and I was very fortunate to receive regular visits from my husband and have some respite. Patience was difficult and at times, inwardly, I would be screaming: ‘Shut-up! I don’t want to have to tell you again’. God was searching out the deep places of my heart (Psalm 139.23-24), because patience was something I thought I had, until I was in the place where I needed it.
God’s dealings with me
It was as if God would say to me: ‘Helen, when you are suffering spiritual dementia, repeating the same mistakes, going over and over the same ground, don’t you need my patience, love, forgiveness and reassurance?’.
I needed his help and strength to share what he has given me in my life with my aunt, and also in the way I responded to her. He enabled me to do that, and I can tell you we didn’t just have bad days, but also lots and lots of great days.
Aunty’s antics at times made me laugh. One situation I didn’t find much humour in, though, and which drove me to distraction, was Marley, the cat. He was the love of my aunt’s life and the bane of mine. She would ask: ‘Where’s Marley’, and I would tell her, only for this conversation to be repeated again and again, hour after hour.
More was spent on his food than on the two of us. He had to be fed every time he moved. He was given the best seat. All the doors had to be left open, even in the middle of winter, so he could come and go as he pleased. The fire would be turned off in case he burnt his tail. And if at 4am in the morning he would meow outside my room, Aunty would let him in. There were times I could have killed that cat. Aunty worshipped Marley. She gave Marley love, devotion, adoration and attention. He was her first thought in the morning and was her last concern at night. I used to complain to the Lord about having to play second fiddle to a cat.
Looking at my own heart
He was searching my heart, and I clearly felt God say: ‘I know exactly what you mean about playing second fiddle’. I began to see the parallel in my own Christian walk to how Aunty was with Marley. I found myself looking at my own heart and asking: ‘Is that how I love the Lord? Do I give him the very best? Is Jesus my first thought and priority? Do I put him first in my life, above all other things?’.
God was going to search out my heart too concerning materialism. My aunt not only loved her cat but was very proud of her lovely house and possessions. She would fret about what was going to happen to them when she was no longer there.
To help her not worry, and because she couldn’t remember, I would have to read out the will she had made. I wasn’t mentioned in it. Despite what people may have thought, I was never a beneficiary. I was there out of a deep love for my aunt. Nevertheless, it was a stark reminder that there was no financial gain for me. I found it difficult and hurtful to be reminded of this continuously. I had to dig really deep and examine my heart and motives and talk to the Lord about this issue. I had to remind myself that I had chosen to trust God to be my provider.
A Scripture which really helped me was Luke 12.15: ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, a man’s life is not measured by the abundance of possessions’.
As my aunt’s dementia worsened she would say to me ’what use are these things to me’ and on good days we were able to talk about Jesus and his gift of life. Sadly, however, she never responded.
What happened next
Nearly four years on, I can tell you my aunt survived that winter and the winters since. After full-time caring for three years I could not go on any further. The heartbreaking decision was made to move her. I had wanted to continue caring to the end of her life, but that was not possible. She went into a care home with a few ornaments and her clothes. Her house has been on the market and is not selling and is now worth half of what it was five years ago. Marley her cat died 18 months ago but she still asks: ‘Where’s Marley?’.
I’m home, back in the fellowship of the church, and unemployed. But I would not have swapped that three years for anything. They’ve been wonderful, emotional, painful and a steep learning curve. I am a work in progress and my years with Aunty were part of God’s work .
I learnt that the things we hold onto and value pass away. My treasure is not on this earth. I discovered that when your mind and body are weak and frail you may become afraid, as my aunt did. As I would try and comfort her, I found my God comforted and kept me, with his Word and promises. I have a saviour who promises he will be with me always, and that I am never alone.
In the dark moments I would worry and ask myself, what if I lose my mind, and if everything is stripped away, what will be left? What are the things I’ve stored up in my heart? For God’s Word says that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.
The most important thing I’ve learnt is that I have a faithful loving Father.
Helen is a member of Radcliffe Road Baptist Church, Bury in Lancashire.