Sunday, May 27, 2012


The response car is parked round the back of the block, its engine quietly running, its scene light illuminating the side of the building in a vivid splash of white. We go in through a service door into a cool, bare stairwell. We walk up one flight. On that landing, a door stands open.
Stan is lying on his back on the floor of the bedroom. Rae is standing over him.
‘Thanks for coming,’ she says. ‘I’ve been out to Stan a couple of times before. He has trouble with mobility, and sometimes he just misjudges sitting down or whatever and ends up on the floor. Tonight he was heading for the commode when he crash landed. Unfortunately that’s not the only thing he misjudged – so we’ll need to clean him up before we put him back to bed. If that’s okay.’
Stan tries to talk, but it’s almost impossible to make out what he’s saying because he hasn’t got his teeth in, and he’s so dry it makes his tongue seem two sizes too big for his mouth.
‘Don’t worry about it, Stan. Honestly. You’d do the same for us if the situation were reversed, I’m sure,’ says Rae. And then to us: ‘I’ve already got a bowl of sudsy water and a flannel, Spence. If we get him up, are you okay to take care of business?’
We help Stan to his feet. His legs are extraordinary, fashioned out of creamy-white driftwood. Whilst Frank and Rae support him between them, I set to with the bowl and flannel. Stan is smeared with fudgy brown excrement from the small of his back down into his withered buttocks. I put a towel over the stains and deposits on the carpet beneath him, then start to wash him down. His legs are so bandy his testicles are easily accessible. I feel like an agricultural worker tending to a bull, dabbing at the pendant scrotum with my flannel.
‘Done,’ I say, dropping the flannel into the bowl again.
We locate a pair of pants and put them on him, then whilst Frank and Rae shuffle him over to the bed, I take the bowl away to empty it in the loo and find some cleaning materials for the carpet.
In the hall there’s a photo of Stan holding an enormous fish. It’s early in the morning – or late at night – and the flash of the camera gives the portrait a hectic, hyper-coloured quality. It flares off the steel frames of Stan’s glasses and the flat black eye of the fish. Stan smiles exultantly into the lens; the belly of the fish sags between his hands.
Back in the bedroom, Stan is neatly propped up, tucked in, sipping from a non-spill beaker. We finish cleaning and tidying. Rae is going to stay and finish off the paperwork, so we leave her to it.


Outside, the night has moved on, settling into that deepest, stillest part before the upward movement towards dawn. A winding band of cloud extends from the horizon over the sea towards land. I watch it for a moment before climbing back into the cab.


Anonymous said...

It's weird, you capture the mood and feeling of work that I know well, but hadn't been able to communicate. I'm not sure other people will 'get' some if the nuances, but it kinda helps reaffirm its the best job I could wish for...

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks, Anon. It is difficult sometimes to put over what it is about a particular job that catches your attention. On the face of it this was so routine - a non-injury fall / put back to bed. But the photo on the wall stood out, and then when we made it back outside the night was so beautiful. There were just so many resonances there - from Stan's vulnerability to the expression on the fish. It's these little things that keep me going!

Cheers for the comment, Anon.

Mike said...

I just hope that the service, and folk like you, are still going if I ever get to that stage. It's criminal what the cuts are inflicting on NHS staff and patients.

Spence Kennedy said...

I think you're right, Mike. I can't think of an area of the health service that hasn't been seriously hit by cuts (unless it's the production of red tape / managerial stuff, but that's another story).

I have to say though that in Stan's case, it's more that he's entered the twilight zone between coping at home and having to go into a higher level of residential care. He still has capacity, so he can opt to stay at home, but the only way he can manage that is to have 4 carers a day, District Nurses, family involvement, GP visits and umpteen ambulance call-outs. Everyone wants Stan to be well and happy, but everyone's conscious of the fact that it can't go on much longer.

Thanks for the comment, Mike.

karenm said...

We should all be so lucky to be treated with such compassion and respect when in such a vulnerable position. When we are young and healthy it is difficult to imagine that we would be unable to attend to our most basic needs. Thank you for the care that you provide.

jacksofbuxton said...

A difficult and embarrassing situation for all there Spence.Although you all handled it very well.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hi Karen
I suppose the thing is you ask yourself how you or any of your family would want to be treated, and act accordingly.

I have to say how amazing I think carers are. They go in day in day out, taking care of essential business like this, helping people stay at home for as long as possible. Incredibly important work, very undervalued. I think Chief Execs / Industrialists / Bankers / Politicians (the list is depressingly long) - I think it'd be great if they were obliged to spend a couple of weeks each year taking on a role like that. *sigh*

Thx Jacks
It wasn't so bad after all. I suppose these dreadful sounding jobs never are. But thank god for disposable gloves, that's all I can say. :/

Unknown said...

When I did community care, one chap we had kept chucking himself on the floor, poor guy. I found him quite a few times and the ambulance staff were all fantastic with him, treated him with respect and dignity as well as having a laugh with him. We had to safeguard him in the end as his capacity was dwindling.
Does make you wonder what's in the future for us and its a bloody scary thought!

Spence Kennedy said...

Yeah - it IS scary! Although you have to hope that by the time you reach that stage your capacity to fully understand your situation is so diminished that you wouldn't suffer the horrible indignity of it quite so much (great comfort THAT is!)