Tuesday 23 January 2018

No answer to the question 'When am I going home?'

Finding it shocking initially, Liam Collins soon saw the humour and pathos of nursing home life at first hand with his mother

Liam Collins’ mother Mary, who died on 10 January last, at the age of 99
Liam Collins’ mother Mary, who died on 10 January last, at the age of 99
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

When the otherwise demure old dear turned to me and said, "What are you looking at you baldy bastard?" I knew that, well, this was going to be different.

At first it was shocking to see my mother sitting in a locked ward in a nursing home surrounded by other women, some clutching dolls or soft toys, others staring vacantly into space, lost in their own world from which there was no escape.

We knew we were lucky to get her in, but it was like entering the departure lounge, once over the threshold there was no going back.

But before long I knew most of the old and not-so-old dears by their first names. I got to know their foibles and their whims, to keep a straight face while giving answers that didn't mean anything to questions that didn't mean anything.

Mostly to lie gently when asked: "When am I going home?"

Thankfully, my mother never asked that question, because by the time she went into the nursing home she was in her mid-90s and something in her brain had short-circuited, so she mostly sat, smiling, her eyes swivelling at any movement in the room or, when I called, becoming animated as if glad to see me.

My mother, Mary or May as she was known, was older than my father and they lived together in a 'granny flat', cared for by my sister, until long after it was no longer sustainable.

But that sudden realisation leaves every family scrambling for a solution. In the end the one we found was ideal - my mother who had a mild form of dementia was taken into a dormitory ward of the nursing home, my father, Willie, stayed at home with his books, his routine and the kindness of carers and family.

Liam Collins’ mother Mary, who died on 10 January last, at the age of 99
Liam Collins’ mother Mary, who died on 10 January last, at the age of 99

The ward where my mother lived out the rest of her life was like entering another dimension, a place of whimsy and laughter, a place where you would cry if it wasn't for the strength of families who came to visit, week after week, year after year, talking quietly to loved ones long after there was nothing left to say, or when all they got in return was a vacant stare.

Trying to describe it now seems so bleak, like a Samuel Beckett play on a loop, Waiting for Godot without end.

But like Beckett there was endless humour in the ordinary events of each day.

You learn to appreciate every flicker of recognition, the walks in the gardens on a sunny day, the interaction between the residents and their nurses and carers.

Alzheimer's and dementia can transform people and change their personality. I didn't know these people in real life, but I did come to know the woman with downcast eyes, walking the floor searching for something elusive; another who read the headlines from the newspapers, savouring each word in a rich D4 voice; the one who tried to pinch your bottom given half a chance; another who would cry out in a piercing voice for a daughter who was no longer there; the women who was always hungry.

They became characters with their own personalities and their own loved ones.

They became familiar figures to me just as my mother, with an inscrutable smile on her face watching the passing parade, became a familiar figure to others.

Then there were the moments where we all pretended that this was real life, at Christmas, the annual party, the sing-song on a Wednesday afternoon, the baking class, the bingo.

But the real heroes of a good nursing home are those who care for our loved ones. In my experience the humanity and humour, the laughter and gentleness they brought to their task was far beyond the call of duty. Most of them were probably earning little more than the average wage, yet what they did for my mother and the other women was exemplary, something money itself could never repay.

They treated each of them as an individual and yet with a familiarity that comes from living closely together over time.

Now that she's gone I actually miss that sense of community my mother was lucky to have in her last days - the warmth of a shared environment, the compassion of carers in what often seems a cruel and cynical world.

Of course this is only my experience.

Many people going into nursing homes are, if not exactly able-bodied enough to look after themselves, at least still mentally alert. They have the dignity of their own rooms and can surround themselves with some of their possessions, their television, the phone which gives them a link to the outside world and the comforts of modern life. In a sense they're the lucky ones, especially if they embrace their new surroundings as yet another stage on life's journey and that makes it all the easier on their families who are often consumed with guilt that, in this modern world, that's what has to be done.

The Health Information & Quality Authority is phasing out dormitory accommodation, although in my mother's case it was ideal in that it gave her some real connection to everyday life that she would not have otherwise found. What I hope does not get sacrificed is the sense of community she found for those last few years.

But one of her companions probably summed it up best when she looked wistfully out the window one bright day last summer and, in a moment of clarity, whispered: "Old age is a bitch."

Sunday Independent

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