Of teeth and tears: Recollections of a carer 15



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These are recollections of some time I spent caring for elderly residents and clients. I suppose the laughter was always the thing that made me come back to earth. In the midst of some desperately sad happening, we would all be lifted by the sheer grit and humour some of them showed as in spite of pain or memory loss there could still be a glimpse of the person beneath. A bright spark of spirit would rise above the gloom. We would smile, or perhaps shed a tear, because it moved us. I worked in nursing homes and care centres for almost 20 years, from when I left England in 1987, until I was 70, in 2009. Even after I left I still did another year teaching art helping with a group of intellectually challenged young adults.

Every person we look after is different, and some impact on our lives more than others. When in the early 90s I worked at a small nursing home in a suburb of Melbourne, I met Doris and she was special. Tight bun of white hair, skin that on her face was lined and frail, but even at 90 her figure was beautiful, and her skin untouched by sun over the years was like smooth alabaster. She was tough to deal with, she threw food at you if you insisted she ate it, but loved cake. She never married but loved the company of men. I was so fond of her and her amazing stories of her life when she was young. We formed a bond, and when she died I was devastated. There was Annie who had us foxed for ages wondering how she became drunk with no access to drink. Then we found her secret cupboard, a cask of wine a week smuggled in for her by a friend. We still let her drink, but rationed it to a glass with a meal.

Katie who used to tell me there was a kangaroo in her bed and got me to feed it. I went along with it so I could chat to her and get her to the shower; she was a lovely old country lady, again with wonderful stories of dances and going home in a horse and cart. The French lady who never spoke and was so sad, then one day something we did opened a door in her poor confused brain and she talked and talked, we all sat around and there were lots of tears. Then the door closed again and she did not speak ever again. I was glad I was there for the precious time that one day.

I loved one of the old farmers too; he used to get me to sit beside him as he ate his porridge, and would flirt like mad just to get some extra sugar on his cereal. The beautiful man I had known for several years at his home; he then was brought in to die, and I was there, I remember him saying, “Jacqui, this dying is darned hard work”. Memories too of special days at the nursing home, when we did ‘Happy Hour” on Friday afternoons; pretend champagne, and strawberries, cheese and biscuits. Lots of fun and it made a boring day better.

The outings to quiet places where we could eat sandwiches or have a BBQ, the supreme effort it takes to get them there is gruelling. Making sure people in wheelchairs are carefully watched, keeping an eye on the wanderers or even like the day we ate at a posh hotel making sure the false teeth don’t get mislaid on plates! That was when we had to search the kitchen for the missing molars.

I am pleased I did the job I did, it was not a career choice, I drifted into it, but it was the hardest and yet the most rewarding thing I ever did do.

Names changed of course.


Have you ever been a carer or seen the hard work nursing home staff do? Tell us your stories below.

Jacqui Lee

Jacqui Lee is 75 and now retired but the last ten years or so have been some of her busiest. She worked at a hospital, where she took several Certificated courses, she cleaned a school, helped to run two conventions, wrote short stories, started painting, and in fact is never bored even now, "I honestly feel we are lucky to still be upright and breathing, and my motto is, Remember yesterday, dream of tomorrow, but live today. I love fun, clothes, food and friends."

  1. I can so relate to this.! I have worked in residential aged care for 25 years and have always considered it an absolute privilege to care for people in their twilight years. The shared laughs and tears along the way will be with me forever. The characters one meets, and the stories told makes nursing homes amazing places.

  2. Yes I feel sad that not more goes into making the homes a better place with more life you used to smell the food cooking and it helped hunger so people wanted to eat. They could do more now it is so over regulated they get plonked in chairs to much today not enough staff. Everyone needs too be cared for by kind people as they age like this lady.

    1 REPLY
    • We seem to be cutting corners all the time don’t we? less training, fewer staff, and no real experiences to make life worth it. I would like to know more about the “Eden’ experiment, a friend in the UK works with it. This is supposed to make life more ‘normal’ for those in care I think?

  3. i worked in age care for 30 years ,and loved it some people have no family ,but have a life time of stories to tell, our kids should spend more time with them than the x box,

    1 REPLY
    • A very good point Connie, remember an old jockey who never had visitors, yet when he died they all wanted to be seen at the funeral as he had once been famous. I was so sad they hadn’t spared a moment of time before.

  4. I think we are blessed to have people like this who will work with, entertain and give affection to these wonderful elderly people, we have a 91 year old living next to us and she loves to chat and absolutely glows when you give her a bit of banter and a cuddle, it is always sad that so many of them don’t have family that visit them.

    1 REPLY
    • So right Murray, and the cuddle is just the only touch they might feel for a long time, you are kind to be there for her.

  5. Love the stories at my mums nursing home but my mum made me laugh when she said “we enter this world wearing nappies and we leave this world wearing napies!!

  6. Love the war year stories; mums boarding school in italy were sent to the popes holiday palazzo so as to be safe; well they needed bras so took down the heavy curtins and sewed; sound of music stole the idea!

  7. I took over my fathers role as a visitor to elderly wives of returned service men. And made friends with a woman who is now gone. We became true friends. And I miss her. The staff in the hostel were brilliant.

  8. I had several choices of homes for my mother who suffered dementia, but chose one that was homely, rather than expensive. I met a wonderful 90 year old lady who was wheelchair bound, but of sound mind. She was a delightful lady who helped me greatly accept our sad situation and each day as I would wheel my mum in to the social room, she would be sitting there , keeping busy with magazines, newspapers, chatting to everyone, but not getting any response, and never complaining. It was a privilege to have known her, and the saying “making the best out of a situation ” certainly can benefit the ageing process we are afraid to think about. I visited her every week after my mother passed away until she died, and we both used to argue who got the most pleasure out of each other’s company. Of course it goes without saying the carers are wonderful, and we can only hope the homes will improve the level of care a lot of our aged have endured historically.

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