May 10, 2010

Monday, shortly before 8pm. I’m a 52-year-old man driving the mile or so to his mother’s care home on the edge of our Perthshire town. I don’t usually visit Mum in the evening, but I’ve been away for the weekend, and though I know that my Glasgow-based brother has taken her out for a run in the car on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons, I’ve decided to turn up tonight. Visiting is a two-way process, and having not seen Mum since last Friday, I’m missing her.

Mum has been in the care home since October, 2008, a full eighteen months. Did I think she’d last this long? I did not. She’d had two bad falls in the month prior to the move, precipitating the change of environment. The opinion of one of Mabel’s day carers was that she would go downhill fast once she entered an institution. Instead, Mum’s condition has stabilised. She is no worse off, in terms of dementia or immobility, than the day she was driven over from the family home to the care home. I like to think that’s in part because regular visits from family members keep her feeling wanted.

There are eight elderly people sitting in the main lounge of the care home and, as it happens, my glance has to take in each of them before it settles on the slight figure asleep on one side of a sofa. ‘Hi, Mum,’ I say, slipping into the empty half of the sofa. She opens her eyes and smiles. ‘Hiya,’ she says, vaguely. I take her hand in mine and give her time to come to. Coronation Street is on the flat screen telly. A program that Mum used to watch avidly, until she began to lose interest in it after the first of her two strokes. That happened seven years ago, when she was 78. The onset of dementia and the loss of mobility were then progressive, accompanied by headaches and mini-strokes. For whatever reason these have stopped in the last eighteen months. As I say, Mabel seems to be perched on a plateau. Here’s hoping nothing disturbs her precious equilibrium.

I’m distracted by the agitation of Molly, one of Mabel’s fellow residents. Molly is annoyed that wheelchair-bound Rona has not returned a coffee table to its stack, something that frail Rona could not possibly manage. Rona is being called ‘lazy’ and ‘good for nothing’ by demented Molly. Also, Rona is being warned to take the smirk off her face. There is no carer around so I step forward, speak reassuringly to both residents and put the table away. I then help Mabel up from the sofa, as she has expressed a desire to go to the toilet. As she zimmers towards the door, I hear Molly having another go at Rona of the non-existent smirk: ‘Ah, you! - You’re always getting somebody else to do your dirty work for you!’ Molly has a vindictive streak (as well as a sunny side), but I’ve never seen her physically assault a fellow resident and don’t expect to.

On the way to the loo, I meet a carer who is just finishing her shift. Normally I would ask her to toilet Mabel, but I don’t want to delay the tired worker’s exit for the several minutes that this process would involve. ‘Who’s on night duty?’ I ask, and am given the three names that will be responsible for the 30-odd residents for the next twelve hours and who should be arriving any minute. But I don’t hesitate to enter the toilet with Mabel myself. In the period when Mum was still living at the family home but needed to be helped every time she needed to go to the loo (or anywhere else), I got used to the job. That - and post-stroke Mabel’s incessant need for company - quickly became wearing for me and demoralising for my father who couldn’t manage the physical demands of the situation. Now, it seems to me, we have the balance about right. We can cope with what’s being asked of us, and Mum does not feel bereft.

When we’re finished in the toilet, we sit side-by-side in front of the computer. I’d never seen this facility used before, but last week at my request a carer set up a Hotmail address for Mabel and we’ve since emailed some photographs taken in the home to her nieces in Canada. So everyone is feeling pleased about that. Today I’ve opened the file of images called ‘Mabel’ and am looking through it for something that might be appropriate to head this column. ‘That’s a good one of me,’ chirps Mum. ‘There’s me again. Another good one… Don’t they ever take photos of anyone else?’

Edith, who has been a resident here for six months, walks past wearing a dressing gown and clutching her handbag. ‘What time should I get up in the morning?’ she asks me. I tell her that people in the house get up at different times, and ask her when she usually gets up. She frowns. Then she lights up and asks what time breakfast is served. Perhaps she’s thinking that if she can winkle this information out of me then she can work backwards to her own getting up time.

‘Mum, what time do you have breakfast?’ I ask. Now this is disingenuous of me, because a working knowledge of time is not Mabel’s strong suit. Usually I say I’ll be seeing her at two o’clock in the afternoon. But when I turn up sharp at two, she’ll tell me she’s been waiting for me since noon.

‘Nine o’clock,’ says Mabel, with an air of certainty that doesn’t convince me, but says much for the durability of her self-confidence.

‘Oh well in that case I can have a jolly long lie-in!’ says Edith, swinging her handbag as she goes happily on her way.

I didn’t know if I – never mind Mabel - would settle down in this place. But I have come to feel that there’s something to build on here. We’re giving it a go, anyway.

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