When I was in my middle-teens I used to visit my grandfather in his care home. I don’t remember if I used to call it nursing, residential or care, mostly it would be ‘Newark Lodge’ which was the Jewish Old Age home in the South Side of Glasgow.
It was an old sandstone building in the affluent part of Pollokshields with a modern red-brick annexe. My friend Heather lived around the corner.
As a postman, delivering copies of the BMJ, Newsweek and Time to various addresses nearby (the Gorbals too, but that is another memory), I dreamed of one day living there; not a care home, rather, a big Victorian sandstone.
My grandfather lived in his /I will call it care home from now, although in the 90’s the term ‘old age home’ was likely more familiar/ for over ten years, from his return from Israel in the 80’s up until his death during my first year after qualifying as a doctor in 1998.
Most people nowadays don’t live as long in care. I believe latest estimates suggest 5 years for residential and one for nursing. Any longer and the health economists are perturbed.
My grandfather’s room (also, from now-on, I’ll give him is proper name, Papa), was on the third, which was the top floor of the new section. We used to get a lift up and down together, although in those days I was fit enough to run up and down the stairs without effort;
He had a room, a bed, chair and view of Maxwell park.
Papa used to take a daily walk round the grounds, either before or after his visit to the bookies (Ladbrokes on Shields Road).
I remember the expression on my mum’s face if anyone ever referred to the place as Papa’s ‘home’ – she would correct, it is a residential home, not his home, the latter being a reference to the place we lived, where he no longer lived for reasons that I will one day describe.
Most Saturdays my routine would be to either cycle, walk or catch the train and spend a couple of hours with him. We would talk about all sorts, often focusing on latest family gossip or news or titbits from my life – exams, thoughts, ideas.
As I mentioned, Papa died in 1998 – I am not 100 per cent sure of the date, at the time I was working in Magherafelt in Northern Ireland; I had to fly home for his funeral.
It is funny how fragmentary memories, shattered in time return, drip by drop; he used to make me a cup of tea from the kettle in his room and with this I would receive one or two Rich-Tea biscuits from a tin; one of those tubs with a special desiccant in the lid.
Sometimes in the summer, after he would sit in the sun for hour after hour, he would fetch me a glass of juice.
He wouldn’t let me go into the nursing section, the place where the people with what I imagine to be dementia were housed; how ironic.
In the lift I remember old ladies with sickly perfume, thick red lipstick smeared over cracked lips. A smell of urine.
I suppose he had a healthy old age, up until the end.
And, how interesting that so many people are now are housed within homes for the elderly. As described, we call them care homes, with the emphasis being on care. We Care, a common motto for all forms of health and social support.
But, do people care? Is caring not now an overused word? It is like so many aspects of modern life, another shortcut to thinking; the way we rationalise the experiences of older people who can no longer live independently or with support in their own homes.
I am perhaps too caught-up in my current re-reading of Barbara Robb’s Sans Everything – the 1960’s work describing the horrific conditions inside geriatric wards in mental hospitals in the UK. Sure, they were likely the minority, but there is a worrying essence which I believe is still present today in some care environments.
Every decade or so we are shocked to see undercover filming of residential facilities for people with learning disabilities or dementia; at these times we reflect on the darker sides of humanity.
Papa I think was always treated with care, dignity and respect. I think he would have said if not.
And people are sometimes surprised at my extreme reaction to lack of care; to situations where a patient is in distress; is wet, is cold, needing the toilet and around them people are rushing not noticing.
Every time this happens, I am transported back, not physically, but in feeling, to standing beside my Papa and later my mum in their hours of need.
How is it that others don’t see it this way?
I know that the phenomenon of compassion fatigue is real; it is a blemish, or rather, a tarnish on the conditions we force staff to experience as they day in and out struggle to provide care; there it is again, that word, that distillation of the interaction between two people, one more vulnerable or in need of support than the other.
It doesn’t matter your viewpoint.
Whether care, home or hospital.
It is all the frontline of humanity.
It is all people exposed for who and what they are in their moments of vulnerability.
It is the abuse of the system by the avaricious and the impecunious that threatens standards.
The way ahead?