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.