“If at first ……. the spanner doesn’t work, then try the pliers … and if the pliers don’t work try something else, including going back to the spanner.”

I use this analogy when teaching. I like to think that people who attend my course go away with either a heavier toolbox, or simply the confidence to use the tools they already have. This lesson was reflected back to me very recently when my mum was taken to the Acute Medical Unit at our local main hospital, frail and struggling to breathe.

Mum lives with end stage dementia. No she didn’t have Covid-19, but things were very touch and go and we were told to expect the worst. Thankfully down to the excellent care of the NHS staff & my mum’s girder resolve she has made enough of a recovery & has returned home. When mum was first in hospital, I was devastated that I would not see again her due to the lockdown restrictions.

However, the ward had an ipad & wonderful staff to facilitate video chats. Now mum has never responded well to video chats, the concept being quite hard for her to grasp, or so I thought, but I was desperate & although I knew I may not get a response from mum, I felt that speaking to her may get through and it certainly helped me emotionally to see her. The first video chat was extremely emotional as the health care assistant said, “my hands are your hands” and she stroked mum’s head & face, at points guided by me as mum was played Rod Stewart’s “You’re in my Heart”. It was tremendously moving. There wasn’t much response at this stage, but I had kept my expectations low.

In the following days, I video called mum again & again. Each time she seemed to become more vocal with appropriate responses & even humour. In fact, on one call, I felt that it was the most engaged mum had been with me in a while, even compared to face to face! I used familiar phrases to chat, laughed a lot & yes even took the mickey a bit as is the way in our family. She responded with her matriarchal catchphrases which carry a lot of meaning and illustrate just how much she identifies as a mum.

In the last couple of video calls, before she was discharged, mum reached out to the ipad trying to touch me. This was magical. Whether or not she fully understood who I was did not matter. What mattered was that she wanted to reach out & touch, to connect. We certainly had connected surprising and delighting me and the staff facilitating the conversation. I had at one point, conceded that reaching out to mum by video chat hadn’t worked in the past and therefore felt pessimistic that it would work. Desperation and hope both motivated me to try though, even if it was to be a one-way conversation.

Thank goodness I went back to “the spanner”. So the bottom line is, just because something doesn’t work one day, or in one moment, don’t assume that will always be the case. Even when cognition is severely impaired, information may get through. After all new pathways and new cells can be created in the brain and people can surprise us at their capabilities if only we give them the chance … and that chance can and should be given again & again & again.