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'Mum was and still is a very funny person. I want to show there's another side to dementia'

Philip Connaughton is a carer – along with members of his family – for his mother. Now he’s exploring their changed relationship in a new show as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival.

THE DYNAMICS OF my relationship with my mother have greatly changed over the last few years, as I’ve become one of her carers while she lives with dementia.

Our evolved bond has really opened my eyes into seeing how we as a society address our older generations and the illness. As a dancer, I’m well versed in supporting my fellow dancers in our movements – so I’ve created a show called Assisted Solo, where I want to explore and highlight how important it is that we all support each other to live our best ‘solo’. 

The theme of dementia and working with my mum was something that happened secondarily – it wasn’t the initial idea. When I make my work I like to go into the studio and see what happens. Work surprises you – your subconscious surprises you.

I’m one of five siblings. I was looking after my mum and I thought this is what it is, I am assisting her in her solo. At the same time it is not always clear who is assisting who, because I am learning a lot from this experience.

‘There’s space for humour’

Assisted Solo Image 5 by Luca Truffarelli (1) Luca Truffarelli

Often when I talk to people about my mum’s dementia they go “that’s awful”. It is, but it’s something gradual and it’s been happening gradually over the years. There’s space for humour, space for laughter. It’s not all doom and gloom. In my work I use humour a lot. Mum was a funny person and still is a very funny person. I want to show there is another side to this situation.

It sounds really weird but one of the experiences that I have had from looking after my mother, and I’m sure my other brothers agree: once you accept what is going on and you learn to live with it, there are positives in it. It feels with my mum my relationship has now gone full circle – I have gone from being the child and being cared for to being the carer and I know her as a more childlike person. 

One of the beautiful things I notice is the essence of her is still exactly the same. 

She doesn’t always know my name. She’ll randomly say names, and sometimes she’ll get it. And sometimes I could be her father, sometimes I could be her son, maybe her husband or her lover. She might not always be able to pinpoint who it is but there’s love there. 

We filmed some footage for the show in my mum’s house. Suddenly we found we had all these hours of material and it became clear she was integral to the show. There was an overarching theme that connects what we’re doing in Assisted Solo. 

The thing I’m trying to do is show: this is life.

A lot of people suffer from dementia in this country, and I wanted to show it’s not all terrible. It’s difficult to explain, but I think among the changes in my mum and the tough situations there’s also space for laughter and personal growth.

Philip Connaughton / Vimeo

‘You have to find something beautiful in everything’

It seems like two or three years, but it’s actually six or seven years since my mum got sick. It starts in such a subtle way, there are so many ways of denying it. Oh, she’s just being like this, just being like that. 

I was ill and feeling sorry for myself and I went to see her, and she cheered me up. When I went to her again the next day she didn’t remember. I realised oh God, chunks of her memoryare disappearing. Like my father’s funeral, she initially forgot my father’s funeral.

And they’re the tough moments, but once you face things and accept the situation I think you can still find beauty in your relationship. I love her so much, she is so beautiful – and there is so much to learn from her still.

One of the things that I’ve really noticed is that her filter has been removed. It means she’s incredibly open and this really comes through in the video material. It’s incredibly beautiful to watch and that’s why we decided to use it.

There is a moral dilemma around that. She can’t make the decision – I have to make the decision for her . I am very protective of her, I want to show her in a very particular light but I want to get the message across as well.

My brothers are understanding about the show. It’s so important to tell this story, it’s one of the most important things I have done.

I think it’s too much to say that people will come away thinking ‘oh dementia is great’, because it isn’t. It’s very difficult. But as long as there is love you can get through all sorts of things. Love conquers all: it sounds like such a ridiculous cliche but it is true.

My dance show is about the idea of dependency and being independent. It explores the concept of ‘solo’ and what a solo really is. The reason I’ve called it Assisted Solo is because even in my work, when I’ve danced solos in the past, you’re never really alone. There are all these people making it happen and supporting you and this is true in life. 

Having someone dependent on you

Assisted Solo SMALL Marketing Image photo credit Luca Truffarelli copy (1) Luca Truffarelli Luca Truffarelli

As a gay man, I don’t think I’ll have kids. The only thing I’m solely responsible for is my dog and the biggest question that arises from this situation is, ‘who will look after him while I’m away?’

With my mum I have come to understand what it is to have somebody completely dependent on you and the responsibility of having a person who needs you 100%. That’s one thing that has been really tough but beautiful.

It’s also broken an intimacy barrier. By keeping her in her own home, I need to deal with the everyday realities of caring for someone, like washing her and changing nappies.  This isn’t always easy but I know my family’s situation is a luxury, as there are five of us sharing the responsibility.

I also think about how caring for someone can have an impact on one’s own sexuality. How do you still manage to feel sexually attractive and in the mood for physical contact after caring for someone in this way? These are the things I also touch upon in the piece.

Caring for my mum has been a really beautiful experience. We can get so caught up in society worrying about intimacy and body contact, and thinking ‘oh that’s weird, that’s strange, I couldn’t do that with my own mum’. But why not? It’s just another human body and it’s a person who’s changed a lot of your nappies! I for one am very glad I’ve got to go on this journey.

Philip Connaughton is a contemporary dancer and creator of Assisted Solo, which will debut at the Dublin Fringe Festival from 7 – 15 September, followed by a performance at the Everyman Theatre on 22 September. For tickets, visit the Dublin Fringe Festival website.

Philip Connaughton
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