My father, Ron, had an indoor fall in early 2002. He was admitted to hospital. He was mistakenly given a double dose of the prescribed medication by an over-tired junior doc (which is maybe why he thought he was in Belgium). I am inclined to think all this irrelevant to the advice I was given that he could no longer safely live alone. Annette and I talked it through and gave him the choice of a nursing home, which he could have afforded for a while, or moving in with us. He opted for the latter.
He had coped well alone in Worthing to this point. He had a daily routine: up by 9am; eat breakfast; read the Daily Telegraph at the dining room table and tackle the crossword, at which he was very adept; go out and resort to TV after lunch as and when necessary; and resist the first of his daily ‘quota’ of four glasses of whisky till early evening. He had a carer whose company and chatter he rated more important than her housework. Let’s call her Sally. He got out when he could, edging his way on two sticks to his car, defying temporality. He found people at shops, cafes and the launderette generous and altruistic.
There were obstacles to living alone. Ron was isolated and lonely, despite – I suspect – being surrounded by older people in the same situation. What a policy challenge this is! One set of neighbours were wonderfully generous, the other – it later transpired UKIP supporters – opportunistic prats (or at least ‘he’ was). Foolishly, during one of my regular visits to Gerald Road I collected the cash stashed around the house, put it into a carrier bag, and deposited it in a corner of the dining room. It was a temptation too far for Sally, who dipped in more than once. We noticed. We liaised with Sally’s employers, who invited us to ‘set her up’. Ron declined: ‘it’s our fault. We should have thought. I don’t suppose she has much to live on. She’s been very kind. Let’s just let it go.’ I agreed, and my love and respect for him consolidated and grew.
‘I drove to the shops’ he told me, ‘then I sat in the car, and I couldn’t remember what to do next! Isn’t that ridiculous?’ Soon after he crashed his car along Worthing’s seafront, suffering a mini-attack of one sort or another. The car was a right off. Annette and I took him to buy a mobility scooter, but he didn’t use it much; it was too late.
We collected him from hospital and drove him to our place in South Street, Epsom. Accommodating him required some adjustment. Restricted for space, we settled him in what had been our living room, which left us with a smallish dinning room in which to chill. He was not difficult temperamentally, which frankly made the arrangement manageable. Nor was he mobile, which annulled the potentially challenging consequences of the dementia that eventually overcame him. We purchased football coverage from Sky, which diverted and entertained him. As his short-term memory collapsed he could no longer differentiate between teams or matches. We could in fact have just replayed the same match over and over. Comedy and tragedy coalesced, as he tried to change channels with his electric razor for example. At his request I wrote out a few basic details: who he was, where he was, why, and his present circumstances. Most times I entered the living room he would be reading it afresh. It was as if I was charged with responsibility for his identity.
Rightly or wrongly, I resolved on and stuck to a policy of truthfulness from which I rarely diverged. Perhaps this was for my security of self and my wellbeing rather than for his? But it felt right. ‘Where’s mother’, he asked me one day, ‘upstairs?’ I explained gently (and possibly brutally) that she had died half a century ago and – for 20 seconds or so – he was visibly upset. Occasionally he would ask if I was his brother. But through it all Annette and I sensed he felt secure: whoever we were, we were of his own; he was safe. At least I hope so. I don’t recall ever lying to him although I am sure I prevaricated more than once.
We took him for drives and into Epsom for coffees and lunches, usually to Café Rouge, which gave him a view of people coming, going and ‘doing’. This ‘sociological autobiography’ may be mine rather than Annette’s, but she was wonderful, providing for Ron while I was drawn almost daily to UCL.
Does he already seem altogether robbed of his selfhood and agency? Agency, I believe, is NEVER totally swamped or extinguished.
We were denied ‘advice’ in the new Epsom-and-Ewell marketplace for carers, but we eventually found our way to decent support. Carers, all but one of whom were kindness personified – has there ever been an occupation more under-rated and under-paid? – got Ron up in the mornings. I put him to bed. He was soon doubly incontinent. I ‘had to’ wash and clean him before settling him for the night. He was acutely embarrassed initially, which I understood: ‘I’m so sorry. I never thought it would come to this.’ But I discovered that I was not embarrassed. de Beauvoir wrote of Sartre’s dying days, and was – WRONGLY – criticized for it. The fourth age is what it is. It will overcome most of us. I learned that any ‘stigma’ should more appropriately accrue to third parties who spot shame in a natural process. My daughters added their support to Annette’s: my youngest, Miranda, humbled me with her readiness to step in and with her sensitivity and skills. I am very lucky with my family!
Ron was to spend two years with us in Epsom before we sold his Worthing home, blissfully to one of our daughters, and left Epsom for Mickleham in 2004.