I was just about to walk out the door to have dinner with my sister and cousin. It’s that kind of moment isn’t it, a moment when social distancing and all it implies means that family are the best people to be with. They’ll forgive you if you suddenly sneeze and will not judge you too harshly for wanting to sit on the other side of the table, fussing over measuring 1.5 metres between us.
We needed relief. We wanted to laugh about the time we scared our great aunt when we lurched out of her pantry as small children – only to be scolded by our parents. Someone so old might have a heart attack and in any case she jumped so much that because of her arthritis, every bone in her body was still aching, hours after our naughty prank.
My mobile was ringing and I could see it was my 95-year-old father’s nursing home. They don’t normally ring on a Saturday night, so I was uneasy.
But Sr Reena’s tone was bright, so I could tell nothing too terrible had happened. Those sinister imaginings for someone who is so frail and ailing could be put to one side.
And then she explained: Dad’s aged care facility was now in lock-down. We are no longer allowed to visit.
Imagine this, an old man who’s too confused to make much sense of his hearing aid any more. Someone who you mouth “It’s okay” to, and make the universal sign touching your rounded forefinger to your thumb, and after a few attempts to understand, he gives up the struggle and says “I don’t know what you mean.”
A hug instead.
Life is bewildering as he slides in and out of the fog, sometimes lucid, and sometimes pouring tomato sauce on his ice-cream. This, even though he is a man who’s wiry and still able to move fast, still able to put his slippers on to come out for a cuppa at the local ‘Wok Inn’, his favourite noodle house. But whose brain is finally wearing out faster than his heart or kidneys, or even the weakened asthmatic lungs that were supposed to finish him off decades ago.
A man who is losing words and losing meaning and so is reliant on the communication of love to feel at ease, to understand. A man who explained to one of my little grandsons the other day that the spider-web in the corner of the room hid a hole that he was going to escape out of. A man, who despite dementia, can still be very funny, who leans in and touches his nose to mine, who says “Your mother’s over there isn’t she?”, meaning the cemetery down the road and around the corner from the nursing home.
What can you give to somebody like this, other than the reassurance of a familiar face, a strong smile, a hand at the elbow to guide him forward? Just like my mother didn’t know who I was as dementia set in, he sometimes doesn’t either. Am I his daughter? Sometimes I’m the neighbour down the street in Broken Hill where he grew up and sometimes I’m his aunt. (Yes, sometimes I do feel 125).
But he knows I’m the person who enjoys taking my four little grandsons to visit, although always one at a time. He gets confused. “Is that your child?” he asks and you can see the puzzlement that someone as old as the woman standing in front of him could be the mother. He knows its suss, so I say “My grandchild, your great-grandson.” And he shakes his head in confusion, and we let it go.
Instead, settling in to watch a child. Those little boys, all between four and one years old, play with his walker, grab his arm, pick up a beetle and put it in his hand. His face lights up. They put their hand out and he thinks they’re going to shake it and they high five it instead. How will he react?
He has no idea who this child is but he throws his head back and laughs and then he taps his head against my forehead. And we go to the gate and he stands there, waving us good-bye and as I drive away I wonder whether when he turns around he knows he has to walk back in along the wide apron of cement out the front before turning into the front door of the facility, where someone, usually Lina, will share a joke with him and point to the hallway so he knows he has to go down that-a-way.
His excursion down to the Wok Inn at 6pm to “have breakfast”. They serve him bacon and eggs and then ring me. It’s such an upside down world these days that no-one would begrudge him breakfast at dinner time.
For months now I’ve done a discussion group with his housemates on a Friday afternoon. We called it story-telling at first but of course it was Dad who sniffed and said “story-telling is for four year olds.” So we renamed it discussion group.
My goodness me, they loved it. It started off as organised mayhem and then gradually they got into the groove of it. I cajoled them into joining in, asking questions and sharing their own stories.
I got to know them and we ranged over all sorts of topics. The ginger coloured eighteen-month-old grandson was a prop recently when I did a talk about redheads. (Did you know that Scotland has the highest concentration of redheads in the world?)
I got to know them as people, not old people. And sometimes there were as many as 18 in the common room, listening while I carried on like a galah, and then sharing and laughing. When I led the session about Christmas asking each one: “Tell us about your favourite Christmas”, when it was Dad’s turn he said the white Christmas he had just by himself with Mum in England. I joked that it was because he was away from all of us, which wasn’t quite true. One sister was there. But the whole room laughed.
And then two weeks ago, because of Covid-19, I stopped doing story-telling and felt sad that such funny, lively people would miss out on one more social activity. Just another commitment in a busy week to me, but a highlight for people restrained to an old age facility.
And then the restrictions. Thursday’s directive explaining limited visits, temperature checks, visits confined to bedrooms, only two people at a time and immediate relatives at that. I’d been afraid last week that a lock-down would come and then I relaxed.
And then last night on the news I watched and felt sorry for the Italian Covid-19 patients who it was reported are dying without family with them, because of the Covid-19 restrictions. And the story I read of the 92-year-old from New York who’s family can’t visit him in hospital because of Covid-19 and he’s explained he is lonely and wants to leave and can’t get out.
And now I cannot see Dad. Not until this is over. But it is not likely to be over for months.
I think of kidnapping him and bringing him to my place. But a house where the grandmother to four small children lives is not a safe place for a 95-year-old. Those little ones are seen as vectors. And I need to be available to their mothers and their fathers, who face uncertain economic futures and like all of us, are afraid of lost income. It is a tortuous, cruel, Faustian choice. My siblings face similar burdens and realities.
So will the twilight time, the last sliver of my father’s time on earth, be spent without the succour, the comfort, the reassurance of family? Will it be spent without the love of people, the technicalities of connection he can’t remember but who he knows mean everything to him? How can this possibly be?
As things progressed I wasn’t the only one to have concerns for those in aged care facilities. This ABC article and video Loved ones of aged care residents are calling for a greater balance between managing COVID-19 risks and mental health is well worth a deep dive.
There is a great episode The impact of Covid-19 on our health system and aged care sector on the podcast ‘The Gab with Grattan’. Michelle Grattan chats with Professor Karen Strickland, the Head of School of Nursing, Midwifery and Public Health about the Australian health system and the aged care sector and just how they are managing with the COVID-19 crisis. Definitely worth a listen.