It always amuses me to see how writers and scientists envisage the future. It’s almost always apocalyptic. They imagine the world coming to an end in a catastrophic way, either at the hand of nature or through the wrath and destruction of monsters, aliens, or the latest – Transformers.
They don’t realise that their world will come to an end through a series of much smaller catastrophes. These may start in a way that is barely noticeable – that first grey hair, that first twinge of arthritis, or the first age spot on an otherwise youthful complexion. But these days, unless you meet an untimely end through accidents or other misfortune, your world’s likely to end slowly, painfully and possibly alone in a nursing home.
I know, because my mother is in a nursing home. As nursing homes go, this one isn’t bad. The staff do their best and are as attentive as they can be, even painting my mother’s nails when she is expecting visitors and being patient when she asks for pain killers five minutes after she has just taken them.
But being “high care”, most of the residents are “ga ga”, as my mother puts it. “I don’t want to be in there with all those cuckoo people,” she said before her place came up.
My mother has short-term memory problems caused by stroke, but her long-term memory is pretty good. This means that unlike most of the other residents, she knows where she is, but not always why she is there. The reason is that three years ago she had her leg amputated due to vascular disease. This and the fact that she has congestive heart failure, has left her frail and weak and unable to care for herself.
Until recently, my 88-year-old stepfather cared for her at home, with the help of a house cleaner who comes twice a week, and a nurse who came each day to shower mum and change dressings on the many ulcers that plague her. But my stepfather has problems of his own and it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to cope with the transfers from wheelchair to toilet and bed.
For the previous six months, my mother was shunted between various hospitals and hospital wards, rehab and acute wards, a square peg in a round hole on every occasion. “This is the worst hospital in the world,” she said every time she was moved, trying the patience of everyone who was trying to help her.
We had hoped that with the move to the nursing home, we could make the room more homely, but she has refused all offers to decorate it with things from home. Instead, she says she is waiting to “go to the cloud”.
It might take a while, I advise, you don’t have anything really life-threatening – just life-style threatening. But she is steadfast in her view that this is a waiting room, not a home.
As the nursing home is in the country, and I am in the city, I get there when I can and ring every few days.
“How are you?” I ask, lamely when I call. “Awful, just awful,” she invariably replies.
Her only consolation is the champagne and cake I take when I visit. I buy too much, in the hope that she will eat a little, and we sit in her room watching opera and getting quietly sozzled together.
Occasionally, we go for a “walk”, which involves me pushing the wheelchair around the corridors, past rooms with cheerful name tags in the form of a laminated A4 page, with a photo of the person that the inhabitant once was, or an impersonal, cutesy photo of puppies or kittens or flowers.
There’s Richard, standing in a river, wearing a hat and smile almost as big as the fish he is holding. The other Richard, the person he has been reduced to, is sitting in an arm-chair facing the door, his chin on his chest, his eyes closed; a smaller withered version of the Richard in the photos.
There’s Jean, whose name tag has a floral theme rather than a personal photo. Jean lies on a mattress on the floor, a sheet pulled up to her chin, shroud like. Her skin is white and papery, and her head is tiled slightly back. Her eyes are closed and her mouth is open, forming an o, like the entrance to a small cave. Her room, like her, feels lifeless.
I feel like closing the door, so that Jean does not suffer the further indignity of being observed by strangers, like an animal in the zoo. But closing the door would shut her off completely. Perhaps that is why it is open – so the life that goes past can filter in rather than hurry by?
Then there’s Dot, who spends her day doing laps of the centre on her walking frame, her brow furrowed. “Nurse!” “Nurse!” she cries, when she sees me. “I’m a visitor, but I’ll get the nurse for you,” I reply, knowing that even if I do, Dot may or may not need her. It’s an automatic response.
“How are you, Lorraine?” a nurse cheerfully asks my mother, as she passes us in the corridor. “Awful, thanks,” my mother replies matter-of-factly.
I don’t blame her, but it makes it difficult to further the conversation.
We turn left into another corridor and find a section that I haven’t seen before. It’s newer and smells of paint. There’s a lovely wood heater fire with warm orange and blue flames dancing. There’s a piano and some chairs. “Oh, look!” I exclaim, my voice high with relief at such cosy normality.
“I don’t want to go in here. It’s lonely,” my mother says. As we approach, I see two white heads and a crocheted rug and realise that the two-seater couch is occupied. The two women staring at the fire sit together but alone, neither able to communicate with the other. The TV chatters on about things that no longer matter.
As we turn around the corner, where there is another cosy nook, with bookshelves, games and a couch, we see another resident suspended between her walking frame and the couch, her buttocks sticking out.
“Oh, what can I do, what can I do,” she cries. I rush to help her, taking her arm to guide her awkwardly into the couch, where he sits heavily, rubbing her arm and crying, “Oh, look what you’ve done, look what you’ve done, look what you’ve done! ”
I realise that helping her was a mistake. I am not qualified to help bodies that are stiff and old and deadweights. I peer in to the corridor where there is a nurse with a trolley. “I think this lady needs help,” I say, hoping that I have not caused any further harm to someone obviously distressed.
Back in her room, Mum fusses as I try to position the wheelchair in the right spot. The room is stuffy so I offer to open a window, but she refuses. At first I think she is being difficult, but then I realise that without a buzzer to call the nurse, she worries that she will not be able to have the window closed later.
For the umpteenth time, she asks, “How’s Greta?” (my daughter) and for the umpteenth time I reply that she is studying for exams and will come and see her soon.
I am relieved and guilty when it is time for me to go.
“It was lovely to see you,” she says, as I turn the telly on for her – her only window to the outside world.
Spencer, my stepfather, comes to pick me up, bringing her washing and her vitamin D tablets, before driving me to the station. The air outside is cool and fresh as we climb the hill together to the car park, his tall frame bent into a question mark as he lurches forward. “Don’t go so fast!” I say, struggling myself. But I know he needs to go fast to maintain his momentum so that he can keep his balance.
We debrief in the car on the way home, seeking solutions where there are none.
“See you next time,” he says, and I wonder if, like me, he hopes that for all our sakes there won’t be a next time.
My mother passed away peacefully on July 22. This was written about two months earlier, but I had not had a chance to upload it. I have done so now in memory of my mother and all others who are spending their last days in a similar nursing homes.