March 4, 2011

When Dad and I arrive at the care home for our afternoon visit, it’s to discover that there’s a concert in progress in the main room. I open the door, spot Mum, and we make our way in front of the guy playing a synthesiser to her side. Mabel seems to be settled, enjoying the traditional Scottish tune, but she lights up when she sees us. I set Dad up with a seat right beside Mum and then take a seat myself next to him.

Sitting there listening to synthesiser and violin, it strikes me that this isn’t ideal, because Mabel is being entertained by the band right now, and there will be times this week when she could benefit more from our presence. But we’re here now, so I must just make the most of it.

Looking around, I have to say I’m impressed. First, with the musicians, a couple of singers as well as the instrumentalists, who are all from the same age group as the residents here. But also with the residents themselves, most of who seem to be listening quietly to the music, some with a faraway look in their eye. The carers too are doing their part. I see one bend to kiss a resident, then at the opposite side of the room I see another do the same. In so doing the carers are communicating warmth and understanding on various levels, while not instigating conversation that might distract from the music.

Mum picks up on the word ‘Morag’ from the latest song. Morag is the name of a niece of hers, but catching my eye and saying ‘you?’ she seems to be asking if it’s really me, if I’m Morag. Not much point in trying to do anything about the confusion, so I smile and nod, which has the happy effect of maintaining Mabel’s bright smile.

I have to say this is different to the other day, when the afternoon activity was an exercise class. The woman who runs it does well, getting a positive response from most of the residents. But she doesn’t get Mabel to join in very often. And this week, when I pushed Mabel in her wheelchair out of the lounge, Mum hissed to her, ‘I am utterly sick of the sound of your voice’. The instructor didn’t say anything in reply. I apologised on behalf of Mum, or rather on behalf of her dementia, and the instructor assured me that there was nothing to apologise for.

Ian is holding Mabel’s hand. A carer takes a picture of them without intruding. The band are playing ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ which is getting heads nodding and fingers tapping all round the room, not least mine since it’s a song that Mum used to tease me with when I was young. Unfortunately for me, the next number is ‘When you and I were young, Maggie’. Dad used to sing that now and then while driving the car, with Mum in the front passenger seat and my brother and me – ‘the boys’ - in the back. The melancholic lyrics would always affect me. Here comes the chorus:

‘And now we are aged and grey, Maggie
And the trials of life nearly done.
Let us sing of the days that are gone, Maggie
When you and I were young.’

Yep, my eyes are welling up. If I move my head a fraction, the tears will spill down my face. So I’ll just sit here trying not to move, trying not to feel so sad. For there is no point in feeling sad, and most of the people here today seem to know that. The green grove is gone from the hill, Maggie, and that’s just the way it is. Now that I’ve got my composure back I can look around and I don’t see anyone else in tears.

At the finish of the concert, the tea trolley arrives and chatting breaks out. One resident beckons me over and asks what she’s doing here. I try to remind her of her basic situation - that she has memory problems. She takes it on the chin and seems to enjoy having an exchange about the music we’ve been listening to. Then another resident catches my eye and I move over to her. For a month or so now, this kind woman has been aware that Mabel and I have a good rapport, and she herself seems to take comfort from that. She assures me that she has been looking out for Mabel’s interests when I’m not around. I’m sure she has been, and that it’s to Mum’s advantage.

‘My husband used to be in that band,’ she says of the departing foursome.

Eventually, I return to Mabel.
‘If you go down to the wood today, you’re sure of a big surprise!’ I tell her, looking serious. She looks curious. ‘If you go down to the woods today, you’d better go in disguise,' I tell her, exaggerating my expression. And she laughs, sensing the playfulness behind my words, if not the poignancy.

A few days later we’re parked beside a church, enjoying tea and rhubarb tart, looking into a field in which stand three horses. I ask Mum and Dad if they remember the afternoon concert. Mum looks blank. Dad suggests that ‘When you and I were young, Maggie’, may not have been the most appropriate choice of number, then sings Teddy’ Bears’ Picnic’ from start to finish. He hums the tune of the song that has the word ‘Morag’ in it. And he announces that ‘Tobermory Bay’ was his own personal highpoint of the set. Again I try and bring Mum into the conversation, but, after sipping from her tea, instead she makes an observation about the horses’ ‘feet’. Which Dad and I respond to with gentle humour and, I hope, tact. Picnic time for horsey hoofs.