Wednesday, 3 August 2011

This Is Ghost World

Regular readers will know that I work at a nursing home as an Activities Co-ordinator and sometimes I fill in as a carer which is what I've been doing this week. We look after the elderly who need 24 hour nursing care and/or have special needs and/or early stage dementia. I love the activities side but I don't much like personal care. Most people don't have the first idea of what goes on in a nursing home ( I thought it would be a cross between 'Waiting For God' and 'One Foot in the Grave' - how wrong I was) and would rather somebody else took care of old people. I'm cool with that.
But the world of the nursing home is a strange and unsettling one, filled with the ghosts of carefree, young, bright, brave men and women, shadows of what they once were. The residents' families flit in and quickly out again - if indeed they visit at all, preferring to pay strangers large sums to care for their parents' earthly needs and to provide the comfort and companionship they no longer feel able to give. Rooms echo to the sounds of long dead performers - Glenn Miller, Ambrose, Alma Cogan, Billy Fury - and the air is perfumed with Old Spice, Lily of the Valley and decay. All the residents have left are a few photographs and their memories. Not all of them have even those.

In 4 is Jean whose son tells me she was a WAAF in WW2. He tells me she is 'Hampshire through and through' and even spent the war based in the New Forest. Later Jean tells me that she was based in Iceland for four years during the war but she can't remember which branch of the RAF she served in. She is droll and peppers her conversation with phrases such as 'now you're talking my language' when I ask if she'd like a cuppa. She winks at me as she drinks her tea through a straw but her expression says 'we both know this life is a crock of crap' and she sleeps for 22 hours a day.

Rose is in 16 and she too was a WAAF in the war. It was the best time of her life she tells me. Now the regular care staff and the nurses are driven demented by Rose's constant ringing on the buzzer...every twenty minutes she is 'dying for a wee'. They are in and out of her room all day and her underarms are bruised from being hoisted up and down from armchair to commode and back again. Each time she squeezes out one or two drops of urine or a tiny hard pebble of poo. There's no medical reason for the incessant need for the toilet - she just needs to know that people are still there. When she's not on the commode Rose sits in her stifling room, windows firmly closed, staring at a blank TV screen.

Then in 11 we have Irene; a great-granny many times over, Type 2 diabetic and laziest resident in the house. She sits Jabba the Hutt-like with her knitting and her televised sport, always amenable  - 'whatever's easiest for you, I don't mind' - until actually required to do something like walk to the dining room or out to the garden, when she'll start sobbing and complain of terrible pains in her legs and 'feeling all wobbly'. Irene worked for the Post Office as a telephonist and later taking telephone bets for a bookie but now she doesn't remember her late brother's name and tells me every day that she has a sister who is 99. Her daughter and grand-daughter visit every second day with numerous children in tow, always across dinner time. But at least they care.

Dennis is only with us for a week's respite, in 5. He arrived alone in a cab wearing dirty clothes and in need of a wash, a shave and a haircut. His daughter is his main carer. Once Dennis travelled to his own apartment on the Algarve four times a year. Once he knew by heart every taxi route around Southampton, when he drove one himself. Once he was a marine engineer and worked on our great naval aircraft carriers. Now he sits out in the garden in pilled old sweat pants and talks about his days as an evacuee. He was so happy out in the Forest that he refused to come home until eight years after the war ended. I said I'll cut his hair when I'm back at work on Friday and he's so, so very grateful.

Ethel in 8 had a stroke and has dementia. She came to us on the back of a four month stay in the General. She is a widow with a son, daughter-in-law, granddaughter, grandson-in-law and great grandson. Ethel can only say one or two words but she hangs onto your hand for grim death when you sit beside her. She wears such a look of abject terror all the time that one can only wonder what is going on inside her head and how much of anything she understands. But when I show her the photo of her old self with her husband she rubs her gnarled finger softly up and down his image and I think she remembers. Ethel was once a big woman and her clothes, her 'old Ethel' clothes hang from her now tiny body. Her family should really replace them but I've only seen her son the once.

I know most of the residents' stories; what authors and screenwriters call 'back-stories'. That's my job, to find out things about our residents because that's what we do nowadays so we can 'help' them; tailor entertainment to their interests; 'understand'. We poke into their lives and say 'gosh, that's awful' or 'I bet that was a good laugh' or 'weren't you brave?' or '99 years old, really?' then move on to the next body, the next bed.
We exhume their memories and exter their ghosts, setting them free to swirl around the rooms of their keepers whilst we clock off back into the here and now.


  1. That is such an interesting post. My grandma has just gone into a local home for 6 weeks respite following chemo. In her youth she looked like a Hollywood star and loved to go out socialising. Brave as anything, a mugging in her 50s lead her down a slippery slope to agoraphobia, anty. It's sad what the human body can become. X

  2. What a beautifully written post and how you have moved me this morning -to tears.

    Your job isn't one I would want to have so I have a huge admiration for you - for coping with all of that every day. It must be wearing on your mind, your soul. The world needs more people like you.

  3. The worst blows fall when people are the least able to bear them. What a sad post, yet full of humanity.


  4. My mother is DON at a high-care facility but she never tells me this stuff. so sad..this is why I could never do a job like yours.

  5. Yes, it’s sad, but you are doing exactly the right thing. It’s not the old people who are at fault it’s us, because we fear that what has happened to them will happen to us too, so we avoid talking ‘normally’ to them. Leaving aside the obvious problems of dementia etc, most old people just want to chat, and it doesn’t really matter about what. By a spooky co-incidence, the day I read your post I had just read a piece in a 2 year old Sunday Times colour supplement by A.A. Gill about why we fear the elderly. If you can find it in the archives I urge you to read it. It was as moving as yours and in a similar way. If you can’t, e-mail me and I’ll scan it for you.


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