Leaving a home for a home

When Simon Parkin's grandfather moved into a nursing home, his grandmother was left alone in her cold house. Who has it worse, he wonders?

 

Every summer holiday I’d lay awake on the narrow bed and listen to the only other piece of furniture in the room – the hulking wardrobe, as the beetles dined. This was the nightly ritual at my grandparents’ cottage, where the insects would feast en masse during the dark, tapping their mandibles loud against the wood till they finally stilled, replete at dawn. It was the closest I came not to adolescent rage but to adolescent madness: whipping from my bed, torching the light and poring, murderously over the bedroom furniture for something, anything to obliterate under thumb.

Nowadays the diners are gone, dispossessed by decay perhaps, as the wardrobe’s grain grumbled past its sell-by years ago. The house is all decline, its ceilings fissure-scrawl maps, its walls threaded by varicose veins of damp. It’s been this way since I can remember – close to three decades - but it never really seemed to matter very much before. The house was held together by warmth and love.

The beetles aren’t the only evictees. My grandfather departed shortly before Christmas, siren-wailed into a local hospital’s waiting bed where the staff mended what they could before making the grim pronouncement: he could not return home. His care was too much for my wearied grandmother to provide; he would need to find a new place to live.

The benefit of terminal illness – and it’s a grim benefit, but a benefit nonetheless – is the schedule it brings. Sure, the sentence is elastic: they might give you two months and you cling on for twelve, or two weeks and you’re wilted and gone in a day; but terminal illness and its prognosis sets the pace of one’s decay.

Mere old age - the sort of old age my grandparents are suffering - has none of that. It’s all unwelcome surprise, slo-mo shock horror. Death grows in us like a baby, its presence felt more each year, its strengthening kicks acting as reminders of our inexorable decline. But death’s final birth remains, for many, unannounced. It arrives to crown old age when we’re least expecting.

This is the problem for the elderly couple separated by unsynchronised degeneration. One remains in The Home, healthy but lonely, clinging to the household debris of memories. The other is sent to A Home, cared for but lonely, sitting in some medicinal chair facing a window on to a road that winds back to the old house and its memories.

Who is worse off in the arrangement? The left-behind, with her uneasy freedom and schedules that swivel around the visiting hour appointment, or the intrepid handicapped, deafened with drugs and the aggressive scent of industrial-scale linen-washing? He too awaits the visiting hour, but with a sapless tongue, his time now measured by the rising yellowy-tide in the catheter bag and the unwavering TV schedule.

“I’m not going yet,” my grandmother says, defiantly, all weekend as I stay with her. “There’s too much to do around this place anyway. And I’m certainly staying put till I’ve drunk all of the homemade wine.” We both laugh, long and eagerly – more than the joke deserves, but less than we need to.

Over our weekend together this becomes our battle cry of united defiance whenever a reason for moving out reveals itself. “Not yet!” she says. “Not yet!” I echo.

But she is preparing. She’s been preparing for years now, asking my brother and me to point out the household objects we’d like to inherit when the day comes. She would stick Post-It notes to these items’ bases with the relevant sibling’s initial drawn on in marker pen. I always saw this as a morbid request, and felt greedy and uncomfortable in answering her. But she was just preparing, trying to take care of things; being a good grandmother.

“I’m worried that he’s not eating enough,” she says, later. “Maybe I should move in to ensure he’s getting enough food?”

I point out that she is paying an extortionate amount for her husband to stay in The Home’s care and that it's the staff’s responsibility to ensure he is putting enough away. “Yes,” she says. “Yes you’re right. I’ll get your father to have a word with the staff.”

“That’s the spirit!” I say.

“Not yet!” She smiles, ruefully.

The government has been trying to improve the lot of our ageing population of late, or at least trying to appear to try to improve their lot. For many, the final years of life consume everything that was built up beforehand, at least in financial and material terms.  Last month the coalition committed to fund any care that an individual might require over £75,000 (a full £40,000 more than economist Andrew Dilnot recommended in his review). That, of course, doesn’t go towards the cost of care in a new home, only treatment. Regardless, a financial solution can only ever be a partial solution. There are deeper, wider factors for any couple facing a care home, ones that grow yet wider if the couple in question cannot move together – factors to do with guilt, loyalty and the incomprehensible pain of a separation that was not asked for.

I have my own cause for worry too. The house (fissured, varicosed) is also close to freezing. My grandparents were born pre-war and, like many farmers of their generation, live as if rationing was still in angry effect. Heat is doled out from the electric fire in momentary burps, before the ‘off’ switch is thriftily flicked and yet another woollen cardigan slipped into.

“You eat too quickly,” she admonishes, often.

To be this cold inside a home is unsettling for the contemporary human, who reasonably expects walls and rugs to offer adequate shelter from the cruel elements. I take two hot water bottles to bed and watch as steam rises, not just from my breath, but also the ambient heat of my fingers. She’s not ready to move out yet, psychologically but also physically. And yet, this is no place for an elderly lady to decline, drawn smaller by the temperature, diminished by the absence of warmth and love.

Sleep is death’s brother. But in this sort of cold, they’re twins. There’s no longer even the insect’s tap to act as a heartbeat indication of life any more, the questing micro-jaws whose nibbles and scrapes can keep a man warm through mere irritation. All that’s left is the air of cold immobility that precedes decay. And the questions - those unanswerable questions.

My grandmother wakes me first thing with a rap at the door. She’s still wearing the headscarf she slept in, tightly wrapped and tied beneath her chin. She’s eager for me to hit the road, grateful for my company and the various errands I helped her with, but ready for me to be on my way now. The new day has brought with it fresh challenges and to-dos which I am not to be a part of and, moreover, she’s worried she’s keeping me from my own familial responsibilities. This is the curse of the kindly matriarch left behind: managing everybody else. “Come on,” she says. “Time for you to get home.”

We lock eyes and I smile.

“Not yet!” I say. “Not yet.”

 

A cottage. Flickr/markhillary, used under a Creative Commons licence.
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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism