One of the harder things I had to do while in the UK this summer was visit my grandmother, who was recently put in an old people’s home.
The last time I saw her, in 2008, she was in sheltered accommodation, having moved there roughly a year before. She had had a heart attack, was increasingly frail, was gradually becoming less and less mobile and more and more anxious and depressed. The move to the sheltered accommodation didn’t help, or at least didn’t slow down the inevitable. After thirty years of visiting her at the house she had lived in for forever (I think since the 1970s) seeing her, and her antique furniture in this new place was eerie, like the time I came across an old newspaper from 1970-something in an abandoned house announcing that the post office was to become computerized. Trapped history.
My dad and I had a huge fight when we went back to gran’s almost empty flat in the sheltered accommodation this year, after she had been moved to the old people’s home. We were there to pick some of her stuff up, and the fight was ostensibly one of our usual inflated spars about nothing very much at all. I freely admit I was a pain in the arse, and part of the reason was the almost empty flat, with its bits and pieces of her stuff almost all of which I recognised and which now lay abandoned, and forgotten. Some of her belongings Dad and his siblings are storing in their homes. A lot has been given away. It got to me that 90 years of life can be fragmented, and lost like that.
The old people’s home is a two-storey converted detached house, which in the entrance smells like a million condensed British lunches. The smell intensifies and mutates the further you go inside, along a hallway from which residents’ rooms branch off. Their names are written on the doors. One was a “Mr & Mrs ____”, their door was slightly ajar. A television blared loudly.
The heart of the house is a dining area adjoined to a living area, a room lined with high-backed chairs along three of its walls. Of all the other areas on the home, this room hit me the hardest the first time I went.
In the centre there is a big cage, and in it there is a single grey parrot. In the chairs there are mostly women, asleep, or just sitting and looking at each other, or at nothing. When I went to see Gran we sat opposite a slightly obese woman. She was joined by a woman with a false shoe using a Zimmer-frame, who spent ages maneuvering herself into her seat. The slightly obese woman watched her throughout, in silence, continuing to stare even once she had sat down.
It was the staring that intrigued me. It was the type that babies and cats do.
Unembarrassed. Virtually none of the residents greeted or spoke to each other and when they did it was a few words about nothing, about objects, such as a stray handbag.
The first time I went I found Gran in the middle of the room on her Zimmer-frame. The minute she saw me she told me to put up my right hand and declare, ‘”I am Sarah Carr”. She was proving a point to the nurses – most of whom she mistrusts and suspects of being out to get her – that her granddaughter had come.
One of the nurses responded with, “don’t be silly, we never said she wouldn’t come”. I noted a One Threw Over the Cuckoo’s Nest iciness. Paranoia is a feature of Gran’s illness, which explains the Me vs. Them mentality vis-à-vis the nursing staff.
Another feature of her illness is that she has lost, or been liberated from, the trappings of convention. It is perhaps this which is most different about her; throughout her life gran was always very proper, correct, never forgot a birthday or anniversary, was an expert at small talk and manners and enduring people she didn’t like very much without letting them realise the effort involved. A good Christian, a church-going woman.
Although I love her, the politeness was always a barrier to getting as close to her as I would have liked. She was at home in the hello – how are you – fine thanks – lovely weather routine - the conversational signposts which prevent interlocutors straying into the woods of talking about themselves. Just once, I would have liked to hear her say something along the lines of “actually, I couldn’t give a fuck” – preferably to me. So that we could really parlay.
Which is why I was astonished – and pleased – when I saw her reaction to a particular nurse in the home. For a change of scene Dad, Gran and I had moved out of the grim social room with the parrot in it and onto a sofa placed in the hallway area. Nurses, and lost residents went past every so often, including a young nurse dressed in green. I noticed that every time this particular nurse went past gran would clench her teeth and quite literally snarl, like a wolf, at the nurse’s disappearing back.
Apparently, the nurse was a spy or a thief – I forget which now. The new honesty may have been symptomatic of an illness but for me it was a change for the better. The small talk, the chit-chat has simply been obliterated - replaced by weird fantasies and persecution complexes yes, but during the periods when she is lucid at least I know the truth about what gran is actually, truly, feeling.
And the truth, surprise surprise, is that she’s not happy. I see no reason why she should be. It’s difficult to express this without it somehow sounding as if I am pointing a finger of blame at the people responsible for putting her in the home (my father and his four siblings). I’m not. I understand that no other options existed short of gran living with one of them (extremely difficult if not impossible) There’s no certainty in any case that she would have been any happier there. If it was me however, and if I had 90-odd years of life under my belt and kids and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I wouldn’t want to end my days in a place which smells of lunches and piss with a parrot and strangers.
In a very bleak moment in the social room during the first visit I looked around and breathed in that peculiar scent of food and excretions and catatonia and wondered why begin if this is the end.
During a lull in the “conversation” Dad had got up to harangue the parrot, and began whistling and making duck noises at the creature. Behind him, a woman who had been wheeled in on her wheelchair shortly before watched him intently. Her head was framed in a halo of crazy, unbrushed white hair and she was stick thin, apart from her torso. She looked like a deflated balloon.
What struck me most however was her expression. I wondered if she had modeled for Edward Munch. I would call it despair, except for the confusion. Torment is the closest description.
So there she was, head in hand staring bewildered at my dad making his noises at the trapped bird while the overweight woman and the lady with the false shoe gazed and a woman inhaled oxygen from a machine and in a corner I noticed that what I thought was a pile of blankets was actually a tiny, slumped-over old lady, asleep.
I experienced one of those terrible moments of what pessimists call clarity and optimists call pessimism, when the scale of life and existence is simultaneously huge and tiny, and you are reduced to nothing, and that nothing is everything. Without wanting to go all Paulo Coelho, what I mean to say is that in that moment life sits on your heart like a bag of rocks.
But life goes on and there is always the blessing of practical matters to attend to. For the first time in her life Gran’s fingernails were long and someone had painted pink nail varnish on them. It was now chipped. Gran asked me to cut them. We borrowed a pair of scissors from the woman with the oxygen machine. She had a pair in her handbag. Gran’s handbag had always been a mobile office filled with everything you could possibly need, but now was an extension of herself: confused and messy. She requested that we buy her a pair of nail scissors, and some cheese. Dad agreed to only one of the requests.