January 6, 2011

Dad and I arrive at the home at noon. The main room looks different, as the tables in the dining area have been pushed together to make two long tables to create spaces for the residents that normally eat their meals in the small lounge/dining room upstairs.


However, Mabel is in her usual armchair in the corner so we take a seat on the sofa alongside and try and engage with her.

Mum doesn’t respond to her latest Christmas cards or presents or indeed to the fairy that had pride of place on our family Christmas tree as far back as the Sixties. Oh well, Mum’s awake if not exactly displaying seasonal spirit. When a carer approaches dressed as Santa Claus, ho-ho-ho-ing, Mabel gives him – her, actually - a blank look.

On any day, a high proportion of the carers here originate from the Philippines. Today all four of the women bustling around getting things ready are from those tropical islands. Though Christmas is celebrated there, and I’m told is a family-orientated occasion, today these migrant workers are working hard and enthusiastically for what seems to be their elderly adopted family.


The senior carer and the manager are Scottish, but they are bustling around to good purpose also. All members of staff are doing their bit to try and create a celebratory atmosphere, and if - for some of the residents, including Mabel - there is little or nothing to celebrate, then that’s not the fault of the care home.

A drinks trolley appears. I try Mum with a sweet sherry and she sips from the glass, which I hold for her. She then takes charge of her drink, shutting her eyes between sips.


Next a karaoke machine is pushed into the room. A carer has a go at singing a carol, to the bemusement of all. She tries to get a resident to sing along to a song, but the microphone has to be plugged into the television, which is at the corner of the room furthest from the dining tables, and its lead won’t stretch far enough. It will stretch to me though, and I find myself – after three polite refusals – agreeing to sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to an audience of 40. There is absolutely no need for self-consciousness in this situation (“Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”), but still I don’t relax enough to give it a real go. And when I turn around at the end of the song (I focus on the autocue throughout my ordeal) it’s to face the realisation that I’ve failed to get the attention of the residents, most of whom are gazing dolefully into space.

I encourage Dad to have a go at
Hark the Herald Angels Sing, since Ian does have a good singing voice, but he can’t get close enough to the mic. A couple of the carers realize what the matter is and try and move the sofa that Ian is sitting on. But this is enough to put Dad off his stride. His score comes up at 53, and though this is an improvement on my dismal 33, its still not an icebreaker.

What gets the party going is the arrival of food. Ian moves over to the empty place at a table where a resident is sitting with his wife and son (the only other family members who have made it here today for the meal). They soon strike up a conversation, at least Dad and the elderly couple do. The couple’s son looks as uncomfortable as I felt while red-nosing the reindeer. But I feel much better now for the simple reason that I know Dad really wanted a turkey dinner this Christmas and for a few dreadful days I thought it would be me that had to provide it. Today’s event simplifies my festive period, which is partly why I’m so glad to be here.

Mabel eats her bowl of parsnip soup without refusing my spoon once. She demolishes her turkey dinner also. And to my surprise eats all of her Christmas pudding. Is it the pre-prandial sherry that has given her the appetite? I ask Mum a version of this question but get no answer.

All through Mum’s dinner I taste her food but don’t really eat. You see my own Christmas dinner, a nut roast, will be enjoyed with my partner and two friends of our own generation. But as I’m leaving the building with Dad I’m again conscious of how glad I am to have been part of the care home’s Christmas Day. For some of us present it’s been all give and no take. For many others, including Mum, it’s been all take and no give. But that’s all right, because I’d just have to consult Mabel’s diaries to see how many Christmas dinners she prepared through the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. And in those Sixties I keep referring to, she no doubt sang
Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer for my delectation more than a few times.

People do what they can, when they can. Or at least they might choose to do so. You can’t ask more of them.