October 1, 2010: home is where the heart is

By Duncan McLaren, Friday 1 October 2010

Alphabet T This week, Duncan McLaren's conversations with residents at his mother's care home prompt reflections on the nature of home
Mabel and DuncanMabel and Duncan

Arriving back at the home after a car ride with Mum, I apply the brakes to the wheelchair so that she doesn’t disappear down the drive while I’m dealing with the front door. As I’m anchoring it wide open, a piece of cloth lands on the tiled floor in front of my eyes, startling me. Then a second one, as turquoise as the first. It’s Mabel’s gloves, which have been chucked from where she sits imperiously a couple of yards away.

"Oh, so you’ve finished with these for the day," I say.

Mabel smiles, but says nothing, leaving me to interpret her actions. I suppose it’s what you do when you get home. You put your accessories in the porch where they’ll be handy for the next time you venture forth.

OK, what next? Mabel needs to go to the loo, and there is a carer on hand to take care of that. At a loose end, I wander a few steps along the corridor.

"Do you like it here?"

The last time Reggie and I spoke, he told me that he used to live in a castle in Couper Angus. It wasn’t his own castle, he told me, grinning from ear to ear, he had to pay someone 'one and six-pence' to live there. Now, at the care home, he either pays a fortune, if he’s self-funding, or nothing, if the local authority picks up the tab. I have no way of knowing which it is.

"Yes, I do like it here."

Reggie looks at me as if I’ve said something ridiculous. Finally, he responds with: "I suppose we have to like it."

I can hear Mum’s voice from the loo. "Wait!" she shouts. "Wait!" I don’t think she’s talking to me. But if she is, she needn’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.

Along the corridor comes Rona, who pushes herself from point A to point B in a tank of a wheelchair. The other day I came across her sobbing near the front door. "What’s wrong, Rona?" I asked. "I want to go home," she replied, "but I can’t open the door." As if all that was separating Rona from the notion she has of home was the front door of the care home. Yes, if she could only get through that front door, timetorn Rona would find herself in her own home, with her own choice of carpets and curtains, her own husband and children.

At last Mabel is out of the loo. I accompany her as she zimmers towards the lounge It takes... well, it takes ages. The Roman Empire could have fallen and the British Empire risen in the time that it takes us to get into the room where a dozen of the residents have now congregated in the lounge, in anticipation of their five o’clock meal.

Once I’ve got Mabel sitting on a sofa, Daphne leans towards me and asks if I will help Rona, who is trying to use Daphne’s seat as a means of providing leverage to propel her own. Of course, I will do what I can to help both of them.

"Where do you want to go, Rona?" I ask, standing behind her.

"Home," comes the inevitable response.

"This is your home now," I say, trying to sound upbeat.

"No, it’s not," says Rona. "Take me to the door, please."

"I can’t let you out of the front door. Is there anywhere else you’d like to be taken?"

"Yes. Anywhere else!"

Rona is a very unhappy person because she’s in exile from home, traditionally seen as that place of refuge, warmth and love. There is still 10 minutes before the meal will be served, so I wheel her to her own room. Rona’s room is two doors along the corridor from Mabel’s, though neither is aware of the conjunction, since neither has any spatial awareness these days. And we pause there for a minute, the door ajar, as Rona points out with a trembling finger, her single bed.

"Ian!" I hear Mum shout from the lounge. The plaintive call for my father brings to mind Mum’s single bed behind the fire door to my right. Indeed, even at this time of day, the building is awash with the unspoken desire for sleeping arrangements to be as in younger, happier days. How did Samuel Beckett put it? 'Never but dream the days and nights made of dreams of other nights better days.'

As I rejoin Mum in the lounge, I’m thinking that, in contrast to Rona, she only rarely asks to go home. Although Mabel also associates home with her husband and her children, the difference is that Dad and I spend time with her here.

"Too many visitors," Mum tells me, looking at the tables round which her fellow residents are now sitting.

"That’s OK, Mum," I reply, ignoring her point. "You’ll be eating soon."

Mabel may accept this place as home, but she regularly complains about the number of 'visitors' who are staying. Yes, she would be much happier if the other residents would disappear. This would leave the building to herself and her loved ones. That is, to me, my father, my brother, Mabel’s sister (who has been dead for four years) and Mabel’s mother (who has been dead for 50 years). Ah, the nuclear family – what a grip it has on the human mind.

I help Mum to the table she’s shared with the same three elderly women for months now. Alas, Mabel does not recognise them. She has nothing to say to her neighbours these days, and may never have again.

"See you Wednesday, Mum."

"Wednesday?"

"The day after tomorrow," I say, feeling guilty about Mum’s empty Tuesday.

"What time?"

"Two o’clock," I say, though I know that the information won’t lodge in her mind.

"Don’t forget," she warns me.

"I won’t forget," I say. And I kiss her on the cheek, timing my departure with the arrival of soup. As I exit, another line from Beckett’s Lessness hits me: 'Never but in vanished dream the passing hour long short.'

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