It's just another day at 'Uncle Franks'. They come and they go and the only thing that changes is the name of the day. It begins with the roll call of death and illness. Who has passed on, who has been moved to higher care, who has been confined to their room - the names roll off the tongue.
Aged care is a challenge. It's an eye opener. When we are young, so many things are taken for granted, like eating and meals. What no one tells us is that as we age, food becomes the barometer by which which we measure everything else. "What day is it?" It is roast pork day. "How hot is it today?" It is hotter than the soup. "What time is it?" It is dinner time. Food becomes the focus of life, it gives order and meaning to the world.
"Hello my lovely. Am I fat? It isn't lunch time yet is it? Am I fat? What time is it? It isn't lunch time yet is it?" This conversation plays on my mind. This could one day be my mother, my father or myself. "Hello, no you are not fat. No, it isn't lunch time yet. Come back in one hour for lunch. No, you are not fat". I can predict the time of day simply by this conversation, same words, same time, different day.
My attention then turns to the list of the absent. I am very particular in organizing the sick trays. On a permanent tray is a woman who for three meals every day, eats in her tiny room alone. In all my time here, I have never laid eyes on her. I fuss over details, making the tray look attractive, ensuring plenty of well presented food and leaving her a little note and a tiny picture. These are the little things I know she anticipates and which bring a smile to her day.
For a 12:15 lunch, by 11:30am I will have sixty five frustrated and abusive people who are annoyed at being made to wait. At this time I am once again reminded of High School literature and Kenneth Slessor's words, 'time that is moved by little fidget wheels, is not my time, the flood that does not flow', because here, time is only measured in increments between meals. Days and weeks and years all blur into one in the mind. The young become old and the old become young, children become parents and parents are children once more.
I begin my ritual of preparation for the meal and so begins theirs. For everything I do, there is someone who very kindly comes along behind me to undo it. I set tables, and the kleptomaniacs follow closely behind adding to their voluminous collections. By mealtime, I will be accused of deliberately not placing things as they should be, although I know I did. For every piece of cutlery laid, a quarter will have already gone astray.What were once full jugs of milk will be barren and dry, whilst individual tea and coffee pots will become the source of much angst and drama. I watch the parade pass me by, lives that once had meaning beyond, "what is there to eat? I think of the past that many of them don't remember. The lives they once led as nurses, accountants, soldiers, parents, teachers, jockeys, people with histories. I think about the photos, stories and families they have shared with me. They come from all walks of life. Through them I learn that the only certainty we have, is that life is a social leveler. The dignity and the prestige 'they' once knew has passed as decay and disease has robbed them of that. Of those who still lead active and busy days, the number is dwindling. I have spent a decade watching over them, watching the tide sweep so many of them away.
"Hello darlin', I am sorry it is so late. I know it is late and I should have asked before, but, can I get a room for the night? I need somewhere to stay, because it is getting dark and my father was going to pick me up. He was going to get me before it got dark but he isn't here yet. Does he know where I am?" In this moment, she is once again a child. As we age, we anticipate deterioration of the body. However, decay of the mind is unacceptable and unpalatable. It is something for which we quite often have little patience. Conversely, we imagine that with old age comes wisdom and tolerance, but it doesn't necessarily. Even the aged themselves have no patience with those who are less capable than themselves. Worse than children, they can be nasty and quick to criticize and insult. "You don't belong here, you go downstairs to eat. You don't belong here, go away. He is filling the sugar basin with milk. Why are you doing that? Idiot! You don't put jam in soup. What did you do that for? Go home!" But where is home? He has been trying to get there all morning, but no one will tell him where the bus stop is and the taxi never arrived.
As youngsters, do we all harbour a secret fear, somewhere in the dark recesses of ourselves, that one day we too may lose a grip on ourselves, on our lives, on the world? Is this why we find dementing illness such a challenge to cope with? There is no doubt it is challenging and sad to watch someone we love slip away from us, into a reality that we find hard to navigate.
Simultaneous conversations are second nature here. I am drawn back to finish what was started some minutes ago, "what if he can't find me? I don't have any money and I can't go home in the dark!" Just like Groundhog Day, we repeat this same conversation at the same time, every single day. Today I am changing the script. "It is ok darlin', yes you can have a room,it is all taken care of. Your father knows where you are and he said you can stay here tonight as a treat". "Really are you sure, she asks, "he was coming to get me". "Yes, he said it is OK for you to stay here and guess what? Because you have been such a good girl, we have up graded you to a very special room". Excited, she responds with, "Ohhh, but I don't have my tiara". Smiling at her excitement, I pat her hand and tell her, "you look beautiful, that is such a pretty dress and your hair is lovely. Look, here comes your personal valet to escort you to your room now". With that, she turns on her heel and throws me a huge smile and as she takes the arm of the nurse awaiting her, she says over her shoulder, "thank you, oh my goodness, thank you so much!" The nurse leads her away and and for that very brief moment, she is the belle of the ball, she is special. Five minutes after that, she won't even remember her name.
Moving on I peel and cut up fruit for twelve people incapable of doing it for themselves. As I do so, I muse that of the twelve, most are physically incapable, whilst the remainder simply don't have the presence of mind to complete the task. Fruit itself brings it's own complications in minds that have wandered. Question - when is an orange not an orange? Answer - when you have a dementing illness, because it becomes an object of frustration. Someone gave it to you, but you don't know why. It isn't yours, you don't want it, you have never seen it before. It is a conspiracy.
Noticing a solitary figure standing by a window, clutching a handbag to her chest as I go about my duties, I ask if she is alright. She tells me she is fine, "she is waiting for her mother and she has been waiting all day". I don't have the heart to tell her that Mother long dead, won't be coming. From the corner of my eye I notice a chair gone missing from a nearby table and a walking frame pushed defiantly up against a wall. A quick look up the adjoining hallway leading from the communal dining room confirms my suspicions. The rogue chair is being pushed up the corridor, its captor oblivious to the effort needed to acquire its co-operation. I let them go, safe in the knowledge they will both be returned in time to eat the next meal.
A steady stream of people have been arriving since mid morning and are seated and waiting. The echo of the lunch bell summons the remainder. With the completion of grace, the meal begins. This is when the real challenge begins. Like children, they fight amongst themselves, "he is blowing his nose at the table, tell him not to do that, filthy, dirty bugger! Tell him, he is doing it again!" Arguments erupt over everything from condiments to glassware, napkins and seating arrangements. "She is sitting in my seat, tell her to move. I sit there. If you don't move, I will thump you, bloody bitch". I observe, as two women argue, and I am shocked at their language and contempt for each other, but not altogether surprised by their behaviour. They are someone's mothers, grandparent, sisters, daughters but in this moment, all they know is that life is territorial and hinges on consistency. The men, often fueled by alcohol, are often no better.
When screams suddenly erupt from the other end of the room, my heart stops as I follow the noise. Investigation reveals a wife, tormented by demons has slapped her long suffering husband hard across the face and is holding a butter knife to his throat. Paralyzed by humiliation, he sits quietly as she spits venomous accusations at him. As she is escorted from the room by nursing staff, swearing and protesting, the pain of watching a woman he no longer knows is written all over his face.
As the meal proceeds, distributing sweets is a long and tedious task. "What would you like, we have chocolate mousse, chocolate mousse and ice cream, chocolate mousse and cream, jelly, jelly and ice cream,or fruit and ice cream, or, just ice cream?" I stare into a sea of vacant faces. Eventually I illicit one response out of six on the table, "do you have pudding?" Telling them no, there is no pudding, I repeat the selection again and I go on to repeat it sixty five times. As I proceed, I hear them muttering amongst themselves that either the ice cream is too soft or the jelly is too hard! There is never a dull moment here and I am shamefully reminded of feeding time at the zoo. As I manoeuvre my way cautiously between tables, wheelchairs and walking frames, a soft and pleasant voice catches my attention. "Thank you darling, we love you, that meal was lovely", so far this is the nicest thing I have heard all day and it lifts my spirits. As clean and clear time approaches it seems that teapots and crockery seem to have bred with one another since they were distributed.Gingerly I throw out napkins I have seen used as handkerchiefs.
One of my favourite lost souls shuffles in to the kitchen. He is agitated and I ask him what is wrong. Confusion is evident in his eyes as he struggles to remember. "I've lost it", he says. "What have you lost, can you remember what it is, maybe I can help you find it", I suggest. He thinks hard, then he abruptly looks me in the eye and answers, "my mind". Startled by his moment of apparent clarity, I hold back tears, it is a very poignant comment.
Work goes on and as I am absorbed by the job in hand, I silently curse as I stumble over a shoe left in the doorway. If this had been anywhere else, this may have been odd. Stooping to pick it up, my eye travels along the floor to discover it's partner discarded not far away. A few paces on is a pair of mens trousers, and further still, a shirt and then finally, a naked man with his boxer shorts pooled around his ankles. Despite my protestations that this was too much information, he will treat me twice more to this floor show before my shift is through.
During the course of a day I will have a walking stick repeatedly ground into my back.My ability to emulate Jesus' loaves and fishes feat will be tested time and again when the kitchen sends insufficient food. I will be verbally abused. I will have hot beverages spilt on me. I will look for cleaning products that do not exist. My meal breaks will come and go as I try to adhere to a timetable that is impossible to upkeep. All day I will run til I am ready to drop. All this I do in good humour, despite some days feeling like I am losing it.
The occasional moment of comic relief rises from amidst the chaos when my walking stick poker gazes into my eyes and tells me with great sincerity, he loves me. Despite myself I smile as I remember the gift of chocolate coated nuts he gave me one christmas, so lovingly pre-sucked of all the chocolate and presented to me, with love! Their lives have become so entwined with mine that for every moment I feel like I am losing it, I am equally lost without them. They are what keep bringing me back. I think of Christmases spent with those for whom there was nowhere else to go. I remember sharing my pregnancy with them, ever frightful as they were that I would deliver my baby on the dining room floor! How precognitive that nearly was. I have shared laughter and pain with them. I have been a constant in a world of change.In return they have been my conscience and teachers. They have taught me humility. They have reminded me constantly that we all grow old and it is important to recognize that loss of mind, does not equate to loss of humanity.
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