Posted by: J M | October 16, 2010

E is for elderly

Unless we’re hit by a truck or get a nasty fatal illness in our youth, we’re all going to get old someday. Society as a whole is getting older. I like to put my fingers in my ears and turn my gaze skyward whenever confronted with the inevitability of old age. It’s a far-off state – a land of pensions, incontinence and wrinkly skin that is as real to me now as Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom was to me as a five-year-old. It’s a bridge I can just about spy in the distance that I fully intend to avoid crossing when I come to it.

The reality of what it’s like to be old was brought home to me via a figurative, yet determined, punch in the kidneys when I went to visit my grandmother in a residential care home. For various, boring family politics reasons, I hadn’t seen my grandma in around 18 months or so. My cousin and I agreed to go together to visit our last-remaining grandparent. Unused to preparing to visit someone who may not be a particularly captive audience — Grandma’s senility had been evident for a while — we frantically bought flowers and checked each other up and down to ensure that what we were wearing was suitable to present ourselves to an elderly relative. My cousin smoked purposefully as we walked there in battering wind that seemed determined to turn us back. ‘You don’t want to see this,’ it seemed to be telling us. We continued regardless.

On arrival at the home — the kind of large, gloomy Victorian relic which seems so well-suited to hiding forgotten pensioners — we knocked at the door only for it to be opened by what seemed like a 14-year-old. It was, of course, a junior worker, but my cousin and I showed our ages — 30 and 34 respectively — as we looked at each other in astonishment. There didn’t seem to be any security procedures we had to adhere to, just a dog-eared visitors’ book that had more blank pages than filled. My cousin played scribe and then we were led down toward where our grandmother was. The home wasn’t grubby, and didn’t smell of anything in particular, but it was in need of some kind of decoration, not only from a wallpaper and paint perspective, but also in terms of adornment and personalisation. It was almost as if the home’s owners had resigned themselves to the fact that the residents don’t hang around long enough to put any stamp on the place, so why should they?

Finally, after a few twists and turns down identical corridors, we came to the day room, a lounge which contained my grandmother, seated in a high-backed chair nearest to the door, and around 15 other old folk. The silence in the room was deafening and the only activity in the room was the flicker of a television, its sound muted. Nobody was looking at the TV. My cousin and I looked at each other and suddenly we were children again. The proximity of so many old people made us feel like toddlers with adult brains, the cloak of youth clung to us for dear life for fear of being stolen by one of the room’s superannuated inhabitants. It needn’t have worried; 90% of the room was oblivious to our presence, and those that had realised that some young people had entered the room were in no position to do anything about it. A care worker brought us two rickety dining chairs and placed them next to Grandma. I realised that our family reunion was to take place in front of an audience, which made me uncomfortable, however catatonic they were. Grandma seemed happy, if bemused, to see us, and once we reminded her of our names and our place in the familial hierarchy, confusion seemed to lift by the second.

At 84, Grandma’s repartee had long left her, and she was reduced to repeating the same four or five statements over and over, my heart cracking a little more every time she said them. Our attempts at conversation seemed clumsy, my cousin’s voice slicing through the silence in the room and my attempts to speak more quietly thwarted as I had to repeat myself so Grandma could hear. We took it in turns to look at the TV, or at the other people in the room. One lady had slumped face down onto the console table in front of her, and a care worker wordlessly lifted her up and sponged down her face to rouse her. Another old lady smiled at us intently, perhaps thinking we were there to see her. Across the room, one of the few male inhabitants chewed absent-mindedly on his false teeth and surveyed us with an expression I couldn’t quite read, like a kind of indifference and resignation you can only acquire after the age of 70.

Grandma took to loudly slating some of her fellow residents but thankfully they were oblivious. The flowers we had brought with us were ceremonially placed on a table in the centre of the room, but were ignored by everybody. One care worker put on some wartime music for a lady tapping her toe in the corner of the room next to a prehistoric music system. She hummed along half-joyfully and a couple of other residents turned slowly to look at her with contempt.

The minutes passed like decades and finally we decided to leave. The beginnings of tears mixed in with tiredness and frustration from the situation began to prick my eyes and we kissed Grandma goodbye and walked back up the corridors. After talking briefly to a head care worker about Grandma’s health (very good, in fact), we asked to see her room. The medium-sized, crochet-laden cell was pleasant enough, with a large window and various mood-enhancing decorations. I looked round for any sign that this room belonged to my grandmother. There were few possessions I recognised save for a mirror I remembered from childhood and a cardigan she’d been wearing the last time I saw her. There was no clue that my gran had been on the Earth for 84 years except for her very presence in the day room on the floor below. We thanked the staff and left.

On the street outside, there didn’t seem to be anything to say, but our thoughts screamed out of our heads. The grandma who had spoiled us and watched us dance and play and perform shows for her had gone for good, her life and soul departed for pastures new. Her body, wilful and stubborn to the end, remained behind, refusing to let the small fact that her mind was no longer willing get in its way. And I suppose I take my hat off to it for its resilience.

As we walked along the road, my cousin smoking and me chugging on a bottle of water like it were a hip flask, we agreed we should do it again. Soon. “We mustn’t make it look like she’s forgotten,” we concurred, perhaps with a faint hope that if we remembered Grandma, somebody someday would be good enough to remember us.



  1. Excellent post.

    There seems to be no solution, does there?

    Your post strikes home to this reader because, at 65, the prospect of my being in such a place looms ever larger.

    High on my list of dreads is that my being gay will be brushed under the carpet. It’s not that I expect to fancy my fellow inmates, let alone look for sex among them, but I really do not want carers trying to jolly me along by speaking of some woman with whom I may have exchanged a few words, if I’m capable of doing so, as my girl-friend.

  2. I worked as a care assistant one summer in 1992. It was the hardest job I’ve ever done, and your posting brought back a lot of memories – especially the catatonic people around the tv. I was 21 at the time, and unable to ever envisage myself getting older. At 21, all you have known is a gloriously functioning body. So I felt sorry for them, but no empathy.

    Fast forward 18 years and my body still works, but I feel like I’m on a countdown to catatonia. I guess that makes it all the more important to enjoy that bit inbetween.

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