May 13, 2011

Here we are at another residents’ relatives’ meeting. It’s hotter in the upstairs lounge than it normally is throughout the care home because there’s a tea trolley exuding heat and about thirty people sitting around the room doing likewise.

As the manager tells us, this is an impressive turnout compared to some care homes in the group, where hardly anyone makes it along to this sort of thing. However, it is astonishing how little we – collectively, or as individuals - have to say. In particular, the few men who are in attendance keep quiet. When the manager finishes updating us on the home’s affairs, she invites questions. There are none. Has the heat addled our sense of duty to our relatives? After a pause, I manage to ask a question about what is perennially the big issue in this industry: staff quality and numbers. With two new care homes opening up in the local area, is the home finding it possible to recruit and retain good staff? In giving her answer, the manager reveals that a particular carer will be leaving soon. She agrees with me that this is a great pity as Catherine is a patient, kind, hardworking young woman who engages well with the residents, Mabel included. Why is she leaving? The person sitting next to me whispers in my ear that she’s gone to an agency because she isn’t being paid enough. This is confirmed, I suspect, by the manager’s next words, which are that she’s tried to liase with head office in an effort to hang on to the member of staff, but that’s not come to anything. Before the end of the meeting, my neighbour whispers something else in my ear, the key phrase being ‘Virgin Galactic’.

At the end of the meeting I go downstairs to see Mum. She wonders where on earth I’ve been for the last half-hour, and so do I. Catherine appears, and Mum and she share a laugh. Last year Catherine was one of the carers who put most effort into the diary that was written for/with Mabel in an effort to stop her getting restless at a certain time of day. I tell Catherine that I’m very sorry to hear that she’s leaving and she makes it clear that her motivation for doing so is primarily financial. I tell her that I’ve just heard that the owner of the care home group has just booked a ride into space on Virgin Galactic for a 50th birthday present to himself. The businessman, whose fortune comes from his care home empire, has paid the entire $200,000 up front for the two-hour trip rather than the usual10% deposit, and so has been given a die-cast model of Richard Branson’s spacecraft to have and to hold. In talking to Catherine, I use the word ‘obscene’.

At home I do a rough calculation. 20 care homes x 30 residents x £500 per resident x 50 weeks in a year = £15 million pounds coming to the care home group per year. Perhaps the owner’s real idea is that by continuing to pay the staff what are, in my opinion, low wages, the care group will amass such a profit that every year a lucky carer can be offered a free trip into space. What an incentive to hard work on behalf of the elderly that would be! Indeed the owner may even have ten weightless minutes lined up for one or more of the residents as respite from inertia. I think Mum is happy enough with the rides she gets in the Renault with Dad and me, but I could be wrong.

Next day, I struggle more than usual to help Mum into the car. “Good job I’m strong,” I say, heaving her bottom onto the passenger seat. “Good job I’m truthful,” she says, enigmatically.

Dad’s in the back of the car as we tootle off into the country. I have Edward Lear’s
Book of Nonsense with us, and when the time seems right, I read 'The Owl and the Pussycat' from it. I suppose it’s my attempt to give my parents a Virgin Galactic-esque experience, minus the giant carbon footprint. In any case, no rocket fuel was burnt during the following recital:

‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat, went to sea.
In a beautiful, pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’

Mum helps me complete the first two lines and enjoys the Piggy-wig reference in verse two. But it’s Dad who is stirred into action, perhaps as much by my news of the care home owner’s ambitions to be a spaceman as by the nonsense poem. Because from his inexhaustible repertoire of songs, he plucks out the following for our delectation:

‘If you’re looking for the Sergeant Major, I know where he is, I know where he is, I know where he is.
If you’re looking for the Sergeant Major, I know where he is: DOWN IN THE OLD DUGOUT.’

My turn, I suppose.

"Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me Major Tom?
Can you... he-e-e-e-e-re am I floating in my tin can. Far above the world. Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do..."

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