June 10, 2011

Dad didn’t make it to lunch last Saturday. Nor did his health allow him to come out for a drive with Mabel and me yesterday. But he’s here today and we’re enjoying a family lunch at the home together. Actually, Dad finished eating long ago and Mum is taking an age over her steak and mushroom pie, so he has gone off for a nap in the car.

Shortly after Mum does finish, she starts to shake the table. I watch her grip the far side of the corner of the table to her right. She pulls it towards her causing the table to move and grate on the floor. Then she transfers her hand so that the heel of it is against the near side of the corner and she pushes. Result: the table grates back to its original position. What’s left of her juice, what’s left of her tea, shake in their respective vessels, though without spilling.

Mum seems quite happy to sit there manipulating the table back and forth, and as I’m the only other person sitting at the table, or indeed any of the tables now, I’m happy to watch her. When a carer wanders over, she explains that Mabel’s been doing this quite a lot recently. She reminds me that Mum used to sit at a table of four. However, the shaking business was upsetting the others, so Mum was moved to this table where she now eats most of her meals on her own.

This reminds me that another resident, Fiona, used to eat on her own at this table. Her place was set so that she sat with her back to everyone else in the room, because otherwise she interfered too much with her fellow diners. The carer tells me that after several months of sitting at what I’m beginning to think of as the isolation table, Fiona decided that the dining room smelled and from then on has taken her meals in her own room, by herself.

As for Mabel, the pushing and pulling of the table is surely good exercise. After all, she can’t walk more than a few slow steps with the aid of a Zimmer in these post-stroke days, so as she still has strength and co-ordination in her arms she might as well make use of these physical resources. Though I mustn’t pretend it’s just about that. It’s also about the breakdown of Mabel’s ability to enjoy healthy social relations.

At the end of our afternoon run in the car, I return Mabel to the lounge. I’ve said goodbye and I’m walking towards the door. I turn to give her a final wave. But as I do so, I see she has hold of the empty seat to her right, which she rocks by pulling the armrest towards her. The resulting thump of castors gets a swift reaction from the old lady sitting on the other side of the empty chair. She snarls at Mabel and shakes her fist. Mum is immediately roused by this and meets fire with fire, uttering a gurgling scream while pointing her finger at her accuser.

A carer intercedes. She asks Mabel what is bothering her, given that she’s just had a trip out. Mum’s agitation is still there, though she can’t express it other than through fiery looks at Winnie, who by now is flashing smiles at me and the carer. Shona continues to focus on Mum exclusively, so I feel obliged to ask if she’s aware of any friction between Winnie and Mabel. Shona does not answer my question. Perhaps she wants to avoid a situation where one resident’s relative implicitly criticises another resident. That’s not what I’m trying to do, though: I’m just looking out for my demented mother’s best interests. So I put my query another way and as neutrally as possible.

Shona replies: “Do you want Mabel to sit here?”

The carer indicates the seat right beside Winnie.

“Well, that would put them right next to each other’s source of agitation.”

“Let’s transfer Mabel to that other empty chair, then,” she says, pointing to the far side of the lounge. And so we make the move. Mum has calmed down by the time we repeat our litany of farewell.

As I drive off, I tell Dad about the minor incident. “Ah well,” he says philosophically, “Can’t expect birds of a feather in a nest together always to agree.”

Perhaps he’s right. But when I get home it’s still on my mind, so I go over the scene again with my partner.

“Does Winnie get visits?” Kate asks.

“I don’t think so.”

“Does she get taken out by anyone?”

“Not as far as I know.”

“Well then, the poor woman’s probably jealous of Mabel who’s always popping out in the car with you and Ian. So when Mabel comes back from an outing and starts pushing around the furniture, Winnie’s not going to put up with that, now is she? In fact she’s going to find a way of saying:
‘On your bloody bike, Mabel!’”.

I laugh. But I keep thinking about the furniture-shifting incidents on and off for the rest of the day. Mabel shakes the table, and for doing so she has to eat her meals in isolation. Mabel rocks the armchair, and in doing so enrages a fellow resident. What is going on in Mum’s mind during such times? Is she unhappy? (She was OK at lunchtime.) Is she frustrated? (Again, she was OK at lunchtime, she even smiled sweetly at me when I drew attention to her table-tugging.)

I come to the conclusion that, in the circumstances, the care home staff are doing a pretty good job of managing this aspect of Mabel's dementia. Though I feel I can contribute to my mother’s welfare by continuing to keep a wary eye on things.