I spent quite a bit of time in a care home recently. If you haven’t seen me of late then don’t worry, my mental and physical health hasn’t taken THAT much of a precipitous downturn that residency in a care home would be the most obvious option. Yet. No, I was visiting my mother in law and it was the first time I’ve set foot in a care facility for a long time.
I remember going to visit my Grandad when his body and mind had had all the fun they were going to get. To watch a proud, robust man that you love fail to register your presence is a very sad thing. He passed away a few weeks later, which was an immense blessing, but I’m fairly sure sitting in a chair with a faraway look in his eyes and being fed by someone in a uniform was not the end he would have selected. Perhaps wrestling a shark or boxing a bear would have been more his kind of thing.
Before that is going back quite a way. As a treat or a punishment my parents would take us all to see a very old chap called Mr Lumb, who lived somewhere in Leeds. I can never remember quite why we always went to visit him but in retrospect it does seem an unusual thing to inflict on 3 pre-teenage children. Fortunately I was the youngest so I can’t remember a great deal from our encounters. I just recall little bits, like there being Marmite in the room and that poor Mr Lumb looked indescribably old and frail and that the veins in his forearms and hands were almost comically huge. I wish I could remember if he seemed happy but I can’t. I’m not entirely sure I would have been.
Care homes are unusual places. They’re little more than stopgap accommodation between the living world and what comes after it, which as we all know is NOTHING. The care home we went to visit the ‘M.I.L’ in was as good as anything else I have to compare it with. The staff were all very friendly and all looked unhealthy in one manner or another. I suppose it might be a subconscious effort to make the dilapidated residents feel a bit better about themselves.
The carpets were a deep, mildly threatening blue and the walls were festooned with appalling, cloned, sub-Hallmark artwork that was so bad it crashed through the usual ‘local artist’ bottom of the barrel and plummeted towards a queasy, cheaply framed hell. As a rule the corridors smelt of cheap air freshener and the kind of scent that Kerry Katona would find ‘classy’, though this was frequently blended with notes of stale urine and of course the cloying aroma of impending death. Oh, and was it hot! The thermostat was on so high I’m surprised the door handles didn’t melt.
‘The wife’ and I visited together twice a day and I tried, really I did, until I realised that spending my Saturday evening in an armchair that someone had very likely died in at some point and watching ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ at high volume was more than I could bear and so I politely bailed out and went back to my ‘M.I.L’s’ house. Which, being a house where an old person lives, was hardly a huge leap forward.
What’s most depressing about care homes is the permanent underlying sense of futility. Yes the staff all smile and bring round endless trolleys of tea and toast and there is a lot of love floating around because I can’t imagine anyone is being paid enough to do it just for the money. I made a friend called Davy who could only really remember his Royal Navy number but was utterly charming anyway and then there was Wilma who had a face like a slapped arse until you got her to smile and then the whole building lit up. She started to cry when we left (they could have been tears of joy) and I wondered how many times she’d been left there, all alone in a building full of people she won’t remember tomorrow.
Elsewhere things were much, much worse. A bedridden, collapsed, ancient woman who was clearly very mentally unwell calling out for help every 5 seconds. She was so fragile in every sense that her door was almost always left open so you couldn’t help but look and take in all that misery. No life is worth living like that and I wished she could have died quickly. Mercy doesn’t even scratch the surface.
I don’t know how many people live in care homes in this country. I don’t know how many of those people would rather the whole thing just got on with it. I saw a lot of love (I think it was love) but not a great deal of joy. Having said that I thought it was quite funny when a deranged little ratbag, I think her name was Elspeth, called ‘the wife’ a c*nt. And no, she didn’t deserve it. Each room was a pastel coloured coffin with a view outside. The heating and lights and TV seem to be jammed on everywhere, as if summoning a collective will to keep going. Keep going and it will all be alright. Only it won’t be alright because all these people can no longer care for themselves. I dread this kind of life. Who wouldn’t?
When we left for the last time we deposited the ‘M.I.L’ in a big empty lounge and put on a Fred Astaire film for her. She’s been diagnosed with dementia and is staying there in respite until a permanent place can be found for her. She can’t live on her own anymore and the care workers that have been visiting her have been only slightly better than useless. But then they probably should be paid more as well.
I don’t know what should be done about people with dementia, or people who are beyond repair. I know what I would do but it’s very unlikely that law will be passed anytime soon. I certainly think that everyone should have more control of what happens to them, the how and the when. We’re not facing a ticking time bomb; the bomb has already gone off in our faces and there is shit everywhere. Everyone should be forced to visit a care home, just to see. They’re a lot more complicated than piss and biscuits.
G B Hewitt. 26.10.2017