The Conversations You Don’t Have Pt1

Mum used to say, ‘Never put me in a place like this’.

She said it as we stepped over the threshold and through a tall, imposing door into a nursing home – once a stately home, now a facility to care for those in a state of decrepitude. 

The first thing you noticed was the smell; it assailed you as you closed the door, sanitised your hands before sanitizer was a thing. The air was saturated with the scent of whatever was for lunch – which always involved a boiled vegetable, boiled so that it was soft enough to be chewed between gums which meant it was so soft there was no discerning by the palate what vegetable it was in the first place. Cabbage often, judging by the stink.  And then there was the smell of Dettol. Or Bleach. To mask the faint smell of urine.  

Years later somebody would remark to me, ‘I could never have somebody old living with me, somebody old and incontinent: my house would forever be doused with the stink of Old Ladies Pee’ (as if it were a cheap perfume); ‘I’d never get it out of the carpets’. 

The most infirm occupants lived on the ground floor; doors ajar to rooms where they lay prone, expressionless, sometimes their mouths had fallen open so that they reflected the wide O’s of staring eyes. Sometimes they sat slumped in wheelchairs, ranks of them, parked in front of a television raucous with day time television, all augmentative audience and pretending to be pacifist host.

Did they understand a word of it, I wondered, as I walked by, smiling at anybody who looked at me, no matter how vacantly?

‘Never put me in a place like this’, mum hissed again as we climbed the stairs to the first floor where private sun drenched rooms spilled noise and voices into the corridor.

The incumbent we were here to visit had all her faculties, was engaged, engaging. She was just old. Old and broken and mostly immobile.  Mum made a point to visit her as often as she could. To sit for an hour or so. To bring a little of the outside world in which she did with characteristic kindness and grace; she always bore such patience towards the old and the slow. The hour dragged. If I were with her, I’d surreptitiously steal glances at my watch, willing the minute hand a move on.   

And then, when we left, carefully closing the big door behind us as the notice beside it instructed us to (in case one of the inmates makes a break for it do you think, I asked mum once and she laughed, ‘Maybe’) she says it again, “Please: Promise me you’ll never put me in a place like this”.

And yet, on balance The Place was comfortable, pretty, an old vicarage, the staff friendly and kind, the food – vegetables aside – apparently reasonable, the gardens accessible and well tended, the camaraderie amongst the occupants – those who could communicate with one another – evident: a bucolic, gentle place.

Did Mum say it because she thought we might: put her in a home? Did she say it because she thought in preempting the eventuality, she was knocking on wood. Did she really mean: Please never let me be like this: dependent, decrepit? 

There are so many important conversations my mother and I never had. Like what to do when she dies. We didn’t have that one either and now, cognition knotty and so much either impossible to comprehend or forgotten or – usually – both, it’s a very difficult concept for her to grasp and for me to spell out sensitively.

And we never talked about this. We never actually sat down and considered what we might do if mum succumbed to something like dementia, something so life-stealing that you don’t know who ought to look after you and who the people that end up doing so actually are. I just said, in response to her, ‘Never put me in A Place like this’, “Of course not, Mum, we wouldn’t dream of it”.

But we never looked at options, alternatives, never did the sums, never, once, considered the fragmented geography of the family she would come to forget but who would be responsible for her.  Partly because – like cancer and mental illness and any other disease – you don’t think about dementia until it’s a fact of life in your life. Partly because talking about it, if you’re not Touching Wood, is tempting Fate.

I wonder now what she might have said. 

I think – for fear of being a burden – she’d have said, ‘Stick me in a home’.


2 Responses to “The Conversations You Don’t Have Pt1”

  1. Addy Says:

    When you have done all you can for her and the time comes when you can physically and mentally do no more, then a home is often the only option. By then, she will not really care or understand where she is and you will at least feel you have done all you can. There are some good homes about – I know when I went searching for somewhere for my dying mother. There are some really grotty ones and some that are more like a four-star hotel. I can certainly recommend this company (where my mother ended up for her last two weeks end-of-life care) if your mother is close to one of them.

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      I completely agree Addy. There are some wonderful homes. And they are absolutely the (only) answer in many, many, many cases. I think mum’s pleas were more about ‘please don’t let me ever need to be cared for anywhere by anyone’. But we never talked about it …

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