I still try and turn up at the care home at lunchtime on Saturday, though it is becoming a chore. I don’t actually eat here any more myself, as it’s too dispiriting trying to feed Mum, a process that requires concentration.
Here comes the soup. I try and stir Mabel, who is sitting in the comfy seat she spends most of her waking hours in, but her eyes remain closed or nearly closed. I tell her that her soup is here and I blow on the liquid so that it won’t be too hot. I touch Mum’s bottom lip with the end of the spoon. She realizes that she is being asked to eat and bites on the spoon. “No, Mum, it’s soup. Soup.” The first two spoonfuls drip onto her chin, neck and bib. I clean up the mess. The third spoonful goes into her mouth and she swallows.
Mum is losing the swallowing reflex. Tea often goes down the wrong way and she coughs after every second or third sip. Last Saturday, she started to make a disturbing sound, as if she was trying to clear her throat. It went on and on, her face going red. I tilted her forward and she got relief but a couple of times since I’ve heard the same wheeze building up and it worries me. Still, today the soup is going down in the bowl, thank goodness. We’ve got a rhythm going.
Upon hearing a raised voice from one of the four tables in the dining room itself, I look over. Jack is shouting at Mary. One of the carers immediately steps in, asking Jack not to shout. Something is wrong with Jack though, the usually genial old gentleman seems upset, and the carer escorts Mary to a seat at another table. She is able to sit there because Molly is not in her usual place. I must ask where she is. I almost miss her ‘God almighty, God almighty,’ mutterings.
Now Jack is speaking with exasperation to Fiona, who never says anything to anybody, just stares at people who speak to her. Surely Jack knows that, after all he sits across from her at every meal. But, no, the fourth diner at table one, the normally mild Ilene, has to say: “Oh, for God’s sake, shut up!” But Jack won’t shut up. He’s disturbing the whole dining room. His fist punches the palm of his other hand making a squelching sound.
A second carer enters and calms things down. Indeed Jack soon has a docile smile on his face. Whatever was disturbing him has blown over. Edith is the one who kicks off, on what I think of as table two. She wants to know where she is. The elderly man sitting opposite her tells her the name of the care home. “Who put me in this loony bin?” she asks, belligerently. “Where are my mum and dad?” The carer who sorted Jack, tells Edith that she is 92 years old and that her parents are no longer around. Edith is an intelligent woman and she takes in this information. Blinking rapidly, she returns attention to her food.
Mabel’s main course has arrived. Stewing steak in a rich sauce with diced vegetables and mashed potato. I ask the cook where Molly is. He tells me she’s very frail and that her meals are being taken to her in her room. Yes, those that make it to the dining room are the relatively well ones. It just doesn’t seem like that.
Again I’m feeding Mabel with a spoon. She takes in a little food off the end of the utensil and chews for ages. I try and move things along by raising the spoon - fully charged with tasty morsels - to her mouth. “Here we go, Mum. A nice tender bit of steak, and some peas and carrot,” but as often as not she ignores the touch of spoon on lip. I have to take the process at her speed. Only when she forgets altogether that she’s in the middle of her lunch do my interventions achieve anything. Then she will respond to the prompting of the spoon or my voice.
What about tables three and four? The two elderly men at table three sit slumped and in silence. They’re approaching the end of their physical strength and mental tether. It’s all they can do to keep going to the extent that they are keeping going. They’re no problem to anyone else, just an increasingly unbearable weight on themselves. At table four, Belinda is being fed in the same way as I’m feeding Mabel. Her dining companion, Donnie, is on his feet having, in his opinion, finished his meal. But the carer wants him to sit down for a bit longer and take a cup of tea. He’s had no liquid with his lunch so far, and she’s concerned about that. “Oh well, if you insist,” says Donnie, good naturedly. A chair is brought for him by the carer and he sits down by one of the other tables, supping his tea.
All in all, this lunchtime has been a desultory experience: one carer on fine form; a dozen residents struggling. Mabel seems to be approaching the end of her meaningful life. Not sure how this ending business is going to be managed in practice. But it’s something that’s increasingly on my mind.
What now? Now I go back to the house and make Dad lunch as I do every day. He’ll ask how Mabel is and I’ll tell him. But I’ll not paint too black a picture so that he can enjoy his meal. And Ian does still enjoy his food, and life in general up to a point, though he’s in his late eighties. If I would just get off my backside and organize a Sky Sports subscription for him then his life would be thoroughly bearable!
Oh, lucky man.