Growing old gracefully

Home Away from Home with Abi Adeboyejo

Email: Twitter: @abihafh

HAFH2Have you ever seen a very elderly person and appreciated how they feel about having to rely on other people to do things for them? My great Aunt (God rest her soul) was a class act. She had a wicked but laxative sense of humour and great dress sense. She would tie the biggest and flashiest headtie at family functions and she always had interesting stories about things our uncles and aunties did when they were little. When she passed away at the age of 87 she was as lucid as anyone. Apart from the wrinkles and her arthritis which caused her to hobble, she was all there.

And so with such memories in my head I eagerly applied for the job of a carer in a nursing home to support myself when I arrived in the United Kingdom to study for my masters. Of course I had applied for other jobs like telesales assistant, office administrator and so on but my thick Nigerian accent did not allow the interviewer at the job agency appreciate all the skills I had. But that is a story for another day. I was happy to get a job as a carer and practically skipped to the nursing home on my first day.

With my million braids carefully packed on the top of my head, the same head filled with pound signs and thoughts of Christmas sale shopping for my entire clan back home, I went into Ford Nursing Home and met the manager. Mr Khan was a nice Indian man who offered me tea and promptly proceeded to tell me how many ‘residents’ I would have to wash, dress and feed everyday. I would also clean their rooms and man the laundry when required by the nurse. I was too excited about finally getting a job to notice that there was a strong smell of soiled clothes as I was shown round the building. The best part was when I was finally taken to the lounge. I saw 13 aged men and women sitting on mismatched mini sofas, staring blankly at a noisy television, some with dribble slowly dropping on their clothes as they dozed off. And these were the really lucid ones. As I was introduced to each one of them, I heard an incredibly loud shriek, something you would probably hear in a Yoruba film when an evil spirit flies and pierces the villain’s chest for charming his neighbour’s wife. I froze in horror and started praying under my breath.

“Oh, that’s Beatrice, she wants her dinner,” said Mr Khan very casually.

Beatrice, John and Anna where in various stages of dementia. At least that is what they called it. It seemed like they needed exorcism to me. Beatrice in particular looked at me rather wildly and I swear she looked like that witch, Gagool, from ‘King Solomon’s Mines’. I began to feel disheartened as the day progressed and I began to understand the enormity of the work I had to do. Well, it wasn’t the work that scared me; I could clean as well as anyone. It was the toothless gums that appeared when lipless lips opened to ask to be taken to the bathroom. It was the demented babble I had to listen to, talk about the war (which one?) and about running away from home to avoid Stepdad. It was the smell of soiled underpants and dribble mixed with the occasional fart.

I went home that night, determined not to return to Ford Nursing Home the next day. But a good night’s sleep and the arrival of my water and telephone bills through the post gave me a fresh perspective. What doesn’t kill me will only make me stronger (or rather, will only make me money). And so my months of working as a carer began.

And the funny thing was, after my initial revulsion at the job, I started to enjoy it.  Beatrice was known for pinching carers as they helped her dress up in the morning. I wasn’t aware of this and the first time she pinched me rather viciously with her gnarled fingers, I went into the toilet to cry. I wish I could do things to her but I knew I couldn’t.  But I still had to get even. So the next day as I dressed for Beatrice, I watched her hands very carefully. As soon as her cackling got louder I prepared myself for the ‘famous pinch’. Her rheumy eyes tried to focus on my fresh black arms as I arranged her blanket over her laps. As she lifted her hands for the pinch I quickly moved my arm and she pinched her own lap very hard. It took her about four seconds before she realised she was pinching herself and let out an almighty shriek. After that incident, she stopped pinching me and we became good friends.

The elderly people in Ford Nursing Home were all lonely. Sometimes it seemed to me that they were just waiting for the end to come, with no purpose in life. But I began to think differently when their relatives remembered to visit them. One resident, Deborah, had three children and four grandchildren but they only visited once in two months. Deborah and indeed all these old people were transformed when they saw their relatives. Even Beatrice became lucid enough to ask her sister when she came to visit about her cats (thus confirming my earlier suspicions about her). They smiled and laughed and seemed to come alive again for those precious few hours.

I know some young people back home complain of being saddled with elderly relatives. But our aged need our love and companionship. When the sun doesn’t shine so brightly, when you spend more time standing up than actually walking, when you have to ask to have things within arm’s reach to be brought to you, wouldn’t you like to have loved ones around you? Grandchildren and their parents gently teasing you as you tell them stories that have been embellished so many times that even you don’t know the real story anymore.

It may be convenient to live the modern life without our elderly relatives, keeping them in nursing homes and ignoring them but our lives would certainly be a lot duller. And if your elderly one has suffered for you in the past, isn’t it right that you show your gratitude now?

To all family carers back home, I salute you. Well done!