Posted by: Linda Proud | March 10, 2009

NO WAY TO DIE

[I wrote this to send to a newspaper but then decided not to. I don’t want a big fuss, and there’s always another side to the story. This just happens to be mine, and this is the right place for it.]

She is locked up and in solitary confinement, half-starved and neglected, left to wet herself. She is ninety-three years old. Where? In the John Radcliffe hospital, Oxford.

My mother was taken in in February because of kidney retention. She had to go – there was no other option, even though we knew what to expect. For, at that age, once you are in hospital it is very difficult to get out again. There has to be a ‘care-package’ in place and, for that to happen, Social Services have to find an agency who can supply carers. Apparently there are staff shortages amongst carers: it is a job which takes a special person. One who can care. One who can wipe the bottom of another. These people are amazing, and they are on the minimum wage. A 20% increase in wages would give them an extra pound an hour. So it’s not difficult to understand why few people can be found to fill the vacancies. Meanwhile, the elderly lie waiting in hospital gridlocking the system.

The Adams Ward at the John Radcliffe opened at the end of 2008 to great fanfares. Here it is: geritology of the future. No longer will the aged be kept in dormitory wards, surrounded by raving lunatics, kleptomaniacs and MRSA bugs. Now they will have dignity and privacy. Now they will have single rooms. The Adams Ward is the future. Our future. Yours and mine.

The main door into the ward locks automatically and you have to ring a bell to enter. This requires someone on the inside to press a button to release the lock. Do they then come to meet you, greet you, show you where your relative is? No. By the time you reach the desk, they have disappeared. Or they are still there, dog-faced and apparently finding your arrival incomprehensible. If you are really persistent, they will begin to speak to you but it seems their smiles were surgically removed when they took the job.

I find my mother without assistance. I know her voice, and she is calling for help. ‘Help me someone! Please help me!’ In a matter of days of being transferred to the new ward, she has become a pest and a nuisance. She is treated as if that is her fault and staff, when they finally arrive to my pressing of the buzzer, breeze in with a snappy, ‘What is it now?’ What are they like when I’m not there?

She clutches my hand. ‘Get me out of here. Please get me out! Please! What have I done to deserve this?’

What indeed. Usually you have to face a trial by jury before society treats you this way.

The ward sister is truly shocked when, a week later, I begin to complain. What is there to complain about? Single rooms? But they are wonderful, just what everybody wants, and all new builds will have them.

Now three-quarters of me agrees with this. If I were there, I’d love a room to myself. I could read books, speak on the phone to friends, watch that extortionately expensive TV that hangs like a periscope and perhaps even discover computer gaming. That is, if I were well enough. If you are not well enough, or too old and frail, then all day and every day for at least twelve hours, you are on your own with your own thoughts, and that really is not healthy. The ward sister says, but who wouldn’t want a single room? Who would want to be in a ward shared with raving lunatics, kleptomaniacs and MSRA? I say – why is that the alternative? Why can’t we have these rooms – which are in fact lovely with their ensuite showers and toilets – for two, or three, even four? No, she says, everyone wants their privacy and dignity. In an institution that cannot hear what anyone says, I find myself bursting into tears, because I do not want to die like this, and I do not want my mother to die like this.

On my mother’s medical notes, it says she is incontinent. Three times on my almost daily visits I’ve found the buzzer left out of reach. No one along the corridor can hear her frail calls from inside her room. And I’ve been there, used the buzzer myself, and waited 20 minutes for it to be answered. Incontinent? No, she is not. Neither is she suffering ‘macular degeneration’ as the notes state. She was already half-blind when she arrived and had been for many years. But her glasses are lost, switched with someone else’s, and now she can’t see out of the window, the only distraction she has in a long day, apart from flying visits from people with injections, commodes or inedible food.

Sybil was one of the most popular people this planet has known. Non-judgemental, forgiving, she befriended everyone and anybody. She has a smile which wins friends (even amongst raving lunatics and kleptomaniacs). She becomes radiant when meeting anyone whether for the first or the millionth time. In her prime, while still at work, she would receive around one hundred cards on her birthday. She’s outlived her family and most of her friends. Of those that survive, only one has been to see her in the hospital. Hospitals have dreadful reputations and are best avoided by the well. We all say it. So Sybil – the wonderful mother, the much-loved aunt and friend to so many – lies abandoned and shrivelling in misery. Abject misery. Misery of the kind to break hardened criminals.

‘What have I done to deserve this?’ she whimpers, clutching my hand.

‘Nothing, Mum, absolutely nothing.’

The human being is a social animal. We live in herds. A few of us seek solitude to commune with nature or God, but for most, we live in groups – families, communities, societies. Something happens to us when we are in company: there is some subtle, molecular exchange between us. In some curious way, we nourish each other just by our presence. Once, when I lived and worked alone in Hackney, I discovered that all I had to do to avoid depression was to go out each day and walk the high street. I didn’t have to speak to anyone to feel better: I just had to walk amongst them. Depression descends quickly on the isolated. For my mother, in her new accommodation, they’ve upped the dosage of her happy pill but it’s not working.

Anyone who, like me, grew up in the 1950s will remember Pete Seager’s song, Little Boxes. We all thought it was a protest against the domestic estates being built at the time. As it turns out, it was a prophecy. As we have lived, so shall we die, in little boxes, little boxes, little boxes made of ticky-tacky. And do you know, everyone in the ‘business’ thinks it’s a jolly good thing, even Age Concern.

If we must have this system, let us at least recognise its shortcomings and do our best to ameliorate them. Visitors should be welcomed and encouraged. Do doors have to be locked? Do visiting times really have to be restricted to late afternoons? And couldn’t staff be sent to Asda training centres to learn how to smile, say hello and ask simple questions, such as ‘how are you today?’ or ‘can I help?’ They may find that such small, effortless exchanges are all it takes to make themselves – as well as their patients and visitors – happy.

Sybil, Christmas 2008, at home where she lives with her daughter and son-in-law.

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