Elsie is on the floor again. It’s the second time in a week I’ve been out to her. A stack of ambulance sheets on the sideboard is testament to the growing trend.
‘Not you again!’ she says, swiping the air. ‘I might’ve known you’d be back.’
Elsie’s ninety-five. She’s been widowed half a lifetime, longer than she was married. She moved into this house with her husband Jim, and they raised one child, Sandra. They wanted more but something went wrong and that was that. When Sandra was old enough, Elsie went to work in a local factory – ‘Who cares what they made, so long as we got paid of a Friday’. She didn’t like it particularly, but she was there thirty years. When Elsie and Jim retired, she knitted things for the grandkids and great grandkids and the WI; Jim went fishing. There’s a photo of him up on the wall, a broad-faced man offering a giant flounder up to the camera. It’s funny, the way he’s holding it, solemnly and steadily, like the fish is saying something important and he wants us all to hear.
‘He liked to fish,’ she says. ‘A lovely man. And then he was gone, just like that. Now then – are you going to make me that tea you promised or not? It won’t make itself.’
Elsie is living in that precarious, twilight world between managing at home and having to go into residential care. She’s got all the mobility aids you can think of – a trolley with her bits and pieces on a tray, a surround for the loo, a walk-in shower, grab rails strategically fixed here and there, laminate flooring, everything labeled and safely tidied away – but despite all this, despite the four carers a day and the meals on wheels and the pharmacy deliveries and the regular visits by the District Nurses and doctors from the local practice, still she manages to end up on the floor. There’s nothing to her, though. She’s so frail you could probably pick her up with these sugar tongs.
‘Ring Sandra, could you?’ Elsie says, settling into the cushions again. ‘She’ll be worried.’
‘Let me just give you the once over and see you’re all right first.’
‘You what? You want to give me the once over? Well – it’s been a long while since I had a young man do that.’
Elsie likes to flirt. In fact, once she’s latched on she won’t let go, and everything starts to sound risqué.
When I go to make her that cup of tea, I ask her: ‘How do you take it?’
‘I don’t know. Any which way I can.’
When I kneel on the floor to take her blood pressure, she says: ‘A young man on his knees. That takes me back.’
Or when I ask her if she hurt herself falling out of the chair, she says: ‘Just my bottom, dear. But I ‘spect it’ll be all right if you give it a little rub.’
She quivers with a scattering kind of attention, which, along with her white and wiry hair and loose teeth make her seem more like a malfunctioning robot. She’s a little hard of hearing and her eyes flicker between my eyes and my lips, on the lookout for scandalous opportunities.
‘I think you escaped this time,’ I say, putting my things away.
‘Why would I want to escape? A lovely young man like you.’
‘Behave, Elsie! You’re making me blush!’
‘Am I? I think it’d take more than that to make you blush.’
‘Look – I don’t think you did yourself any damage, Elsie. And you certainly don’t need to go to hospital.’
‘Hospital? I don’t want to go to hospital. It’s full of sick people.’
‘I’m quite happy here on my own, thank you very much. ‘Course, I’d be even happier if you stayed with me.’
‘I can’t do that, Elsie. I’ve got work to do.’
‘Oh, don’t worry about that. They’ll understand.’
‘Anyway - shall I call Sandra and let her know what happened?’
She deflates a little, and relaxes back into her normal operating mode.
‘If you wouldn’t mind,’ she says, and looks around for her tea.
Sandra’s obviously been waiting by the phone. She answers immediately.
‘I’ve put Elsie back in her chair,’ I tell her. ‘She’s not hurt, so I won’t be taking her to hospital.’
‘You don’t think she should go in, then? To find out why she keeps falling?’
‘To be honest, Sandra, she’s been in plenty of times already, and it’s always the same. She’s not complaining of anything new this morning, and she’s well set-up here, so I think the best thing is if we leave a note for her GP to review things later on. The carer’s due any minute.’
A silence follows that I let ride for as long as I can, but eventually I’m driven to ask: ‘Is that okay?’
‘Do you think Mum can hear what I’m saying?’ she says, a harder and more direct tone to her voice.
‘No. Probably not.’
‘Please don’t say this out loud or tell her what I said, but we’re going to get her put in a home.’
‘We can’t cope any more. I’m seventy-odd myself, and Len’s not well. We can’t keep on like this.’
She sounds exhausted, close to tears.
‘No. Right. Sorry to hear it.’
‘But thanks for what you’ve done. I’m sorry you keep getting called out.’
‘It’s no problem. Shall I pass you over to Elsie?’
‘No. Let her enjoy her tea. Tell her I'll be round later.’
Elsie is looking across at me and smiling. I say goodbye to Sandra and hang up.
‘Lovely cuppa,’ says Elsie, taking another unsteady slurp. ‘Any-hoo. What did my darling daughter have to say?’
‘She said she’d see you soon.’
‘That’s good,’ says Elsie, then sighs and puts the cup aside. ‘She’s a lovely girl, you know. She just takes on too much, like her father. One of nature’s worriers. I probably don’t help, what with one thing and another, but really, she’s got to learn to let go.’
I pick up my bag to go.
‘Is there anything I else I can do for you?’
‘Oh – plenty!’ she says, and grins lasciviously.