A light lunch

By Duncan McLaren, Friday 4 January 2013

Duncan spends a pleasant lunchtime with Mabel and the other care home residents
Mabel in the care homeMabel at lunch, May 2012

It’s over a month since I’ve fed Mum. I feel the need to get back into the habit of doing that once a week in order to monitor her well-being. So here I sit, Saturday lunchtime.

Actually, the last time I fed Mum I wrote about the experience (see ‘A Late Lunch’, posted on November 23, 2012). Molly, whose absence from the dining room I noted that day, has since died. Belinda who was spoon-fed then in the same way I feed Mabel, has also died. Alas, Mabel is coming very close to the top of the unwritten list of most ‘at risk’ residents. Today she is conscious but her eyes are closed. She has not acknowledged my presence and nor did she seem to notice when I removed her right hearing aid to get its battery replaced. In a hard to define way she seems comfortable in her own skin. Which is reassuring.

Tess is in charge of the dining room this lunchtime. Cheerfully, she approaches Mabel’s table and adds a teaspoonful from a tin that bears the label ‘smart starch’ to Mum’s juice. This stuff can be used to thicken all Mabel’s drinks now so that she can swallow them more easily. It seems to work. She doesn’t cough as she sips from the glass that I present to her lips.

The widescreen TV is tuned to a radio station. Pop music from the last few decades is playing in the dining room. I don’t know why ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart,’ by Bonnie Tyler would be appropriate for these circumstances, but it seems to work. Perhaps it’s the lyrics:

“Once upon a time I was falling in love,
But now I'm only falling apart.
There's nothing I can do:
A total eclipse of the heart.”

Come to think about it, this song, as so many others, could be written for people in their declining years rather than in their prime. What worked for a relatively young person when the song was a hit in the Eighties could work in a completely new way for him or her thirty years later. That’s another thing I seem to find reassuring.

There is a particularly pleasant vibe to the home today, which I think about as I spoon first leek and potato soup and then steak pie with mashed potatoes and boiled veg into Mum. Tess and Tracey are doing the same spooning business with other far-gone residents, otherwise the diners are feeding themselves as they’ve always done. Edith tells the carers that the soup is too salty. Tess says that she will pass on her observation to the cook. I follow this up a few minutes later by saying that the meat is also very salty. Again Tess says she will let the cook know. “Be discreet,” I ask. “Robert!” Tess pretends to shout. “What the hell are you doing in there!”

Reggie is on his feet. “I’ve had enough,” he says. “I don’t believe you,” says Tess, good-naturedly. “I’ve had enough,” repeats Reggie. “I don’t believe you,” repeats Tess. Reggie is known for his hearty appetite. But when he says “I’ve had enough,” for a third time. Tess changes tack and asks him if he’d like to stick around for a cup of tea. “Oh yes, I’ll do that.”

Meanwhile, Winnie, who was making her way from toilet to dining room when I arrived, has just got back from another trip to the loo. She looks at her meal and makes disturbed noises. Tess interprets this to be a complaint about the temperature of the food, and upon getting no reply from Winnie, takes away her plate to be heated up. However, when the plate is returned, Winnie still doesn’t seem happy. Tess talks Winnie through her options and then appears with a banana sandwich. Winnie makes disturbed noises again. “But I’ve made it specially for you,” says Tess. Winnie takes a bite. Is she going to settle down to eat something? It seems she is.

Meanwhile Harold has attracted Tess’s attention by patting her on the bottom.

“Why are you touching me on the bum?” the carer enquires of the elderly man.

“Sorry. I was just trying to attract your attention.”

“OK, you’re forgiven. What can I do for you?”

“There’s something wrong with my eyes.”

Tess kneels by him and together they test the sight of first one eye then another. At the end of the process he seems somewhat reassured, especially when Tess says that they’ll do another check at the beginning of the week and call the doctor if necessary.

Betty of the over-salted soup is the first to leave the table.

“Good lunch?” I ask as she passes Mabel and me.

“Lovely lunch. I’m going to bed to sleep it off.”

But this is not her usual routine, so Tess asks if it’s not a bit too early to go to bed.

“Oh, I’m just off to spend a penny,” says Betty, breezily.

Mabel finishes her food. Tea arrives for both of us. I congratulate Tess on the smooth running of the dining room. She tells me that music is the key. Not just at lunchtime but at breakfast as well. She tells me that Mabel has gone off porridge and is now eating Weetabix to start the day. Weetabix and ‘You are the sunshine of my life’? I look at Mum, sitting there with eyes shut and a healthy shine to her skin. What is she thinking?

“Once upon a time there was light in my life,
But now there's only love in the dark.
Nothing I can say:
A total eclipse of the heart.”

Although it’s tempting to sentimentalize Mum’s situation in this way, I’ve really no idea what’s going on in her mind. I’ll just keep watching out for her, holding her hand when she’ll let me.


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  • Kathleen Elliott

    Posted: Friday 11 January 2013

    I would just like to say I am full of admiration for Duncan and I am really touched by the way he writes about Mabel.


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Visiting Mabel

A carer's diary

Read Duncan McLaren's tender and compelling online diary about his relationship with mother, Mabel, who is now in a care home.


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