October 15, 2010

It’s four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. I’m just getting back to the care home having spent the afternoon with Mum and Dad. Four solid hours of family life as we know it nowadays. I’m ready for a break.

Pushing Mum’s wheelchair into the lounge, I notice there is no carer around. Eight residents in various states of stupification, but no staff. Well, that’s all right, I can do the next thing myself. I tell Mum I’ll be back in one minute. “Okey, dokey,” she says.

In fact, it probably takes me five minutes to walk to her room, find a vase and display the small bunch of flowers that I’ve brought from Dad’s garden. When I get back to the lounge there is still no carer in sight. Geoffrey, who is sitting beside Mabel, complains to me that he’s been there since three o’clock and that this is the third time that he’s had to listen to the CD of traditional Scottish tunes that’s playing. He smiles and tells me that if you sit there long enough, all the tunes begin to merge into one. ‘MacPherson’s Lament’, the never ending melancholic mix.

Time for a change. I pick up the remote control and flick through the channels. I ask if anyone has any preferences but get no response. Rugby League it is then. That might seem a perverse choice, but it makes for a colourful scene on the telly and the sense of purpose of the players is palpable. Perhaps a bit of it will rub off on this team.

I notice that Jane has moved from her seat. She is blind and walks with her back so badly bent that her head is close to her knees. She mutters something about going to the toilet. I can’t help her with that. I can’t even show her the way as she shrinks from unknown voices, so for the moment I just watch as she grips the giant flat screen TV and uses that to facilitate her progress. Muscular young men thump into each other right beside her, but they don’t impede Jane’s tentative drift from one side of the telly to the other. As she continues to feel her way across the room she encounters a particularly frail fellow resident. Jane stops to stroke the back of the other’s bent neck. In silence. The comatose one seems to find this comforting, judging by the rhythmic sound she makes.

When Jane gets on the move again, Mabel observes that her trousers are ‘huggering’.

“Is that a local expression?” I ask.

I’m not sure,” says Mum.

I glance at Geoffrey but he shrugs his shoulders. I can see that he doesn’t want to contradict Mabel, but nor does he know what she’s talking about.

“I’ve heard of hugger-mugger but not huggering,” I say. Hmm: not sure if that sentence will have been used within these four walls before. So I try again more simply: “What does huggering mean, Mum?”

“It means that her trousers are… sort of…” and Mum makes a waving motion with her right hand.

“Her trousers are falling down?” I ask. Are they? Jane’s trousers are bearing up well, it seems to me. She is now cutting diagonally across the room. As she approaches the sofa, one of the elderly women sitting on it says to Jane: “Don’t touch the lady.” This stops Jane’s hand just before it makes contact with the leg of the speaker’s constant companion. But, in her confusion, Jane turns right and is now heading back towards her original seat. Before getting there she stumbles across another resident, a woman who is semi-permanently asleep. Jane strokes her ankle. Gently. It’s a piece of human contact that does both of them good, I’m sure. But what Jane really needs right now is to be helped to the toilet, so I get up to go in search of a carer.

On the way out of the room I bump into one. Unfortunately, she’s off-duty. Shona has taken two of the residents to a teashop close to Dunkeld, she tells me. I can see that the party have been enlivened by the change of scene, but I continue my search for assistance, reasoning that I can hardly ask Shona to muck-in on her day off.

In the office, the senior is sitting at her desk, poring over a test paper. It’s not her own, she assures me, but that of another staff member. English is not the first language of the worker in question and the senior is puzzling over how to deal with the complications this causes. I express my concern that the lounge is not being adequately staffed. It’s 4.25pm, and I can say for sure that no carer has been in there for fifteen minutes (though I suspect no-one has been in there for a full twenty-five minutes). “That’s strange,” says the senior. She tells me that Lisa should be patrolling downstairs. In fact, the senior reckons that it’s just a minute or two since she asked Lisa if Mabel was back yet. I put it to the senior that in concentrating on the test paper, time may have passed a lot more quickly than she realises. “Where is Lisa?” she asks. I shrug. Perhaps Lisa is lying down in a darkened room. And I don’t mean that as a criticism. This afternoon when I got back to the family house with Mum and Dad, post-picnic, I left them in front of the telly and went upstairs to lie on a bed. I was knackered, though it didn’t seem like I’d been doing much. It wouldn’t surprise me if Lisa feels knackered right now, several hours into her eight-hour shift. The fact is there should be more staff on duty all day: the lounge is a series of accidents waiting to happen. That the place is understaffed is not the fault of local management. It’s the fault of the group who owns and operates the care home for setting staff levels too low. Perhaps minimum legal requirements are being met, but I don’t think that’s enough to ensure either dignity or safety.

As I leave the office, I can’t help thinking that there is a lot of goodwill in this place. Witness one member of staff treating residents on her day off. Witness another going through a test paper on a colleague’s behalf. Witness Jane stroking the skin of her fellow residents, and now, at last, being gently escorted to the toilet by Lisa.

As I say goodbye to Mum, I realise what huggering means. It’s hugging when there’s some kind of glitch in between the hugger and the ones that need the hugging.

 - 228