Sunday, July 01, 2012


We press the number on the intercom but no-one answers. We press every other number, too - given that it’s still only nine o’clock at night and someone must be in – but again, no reply. The apartment block rises up beyond the gates, a cool green glass appliance for living. A gym illuminated on the ground floor, empty. A selection of expensive cars parked in numbered spaces.
We call Control, who get back on the phone to the live-in carer. After a few more minutes a glass door swings open and a large black woman hurries over to us, a margin of fat around her hips so accommodating you could jump up and ride it like the running board on a Bentley. She is wearing a Let’s Go Yankees! t-shirt, jogging bottoms, and slippers large enough to walk on water. She lumps across to the pedestrian gate at the side, comes out, then before we can say anything, slams it shut behind her.
‘Hello,’ she says, then stands and smiles at us, breathing heavily.
‘Erm – do you have a key to get back in?’
‘A key? No.’
‘Erm – okay!’
‘Mary has fallen on the floor. She has not done herself any harm I think, but I cannot lift her by myself.’
‘That’s fine. We’re happy to help. It’s just erm…’
‘Let me see about this stupid business,’ she says, turning to the intercom pad. ‘It really is a nuisance.’ She prods in the key code, then looks at the gate. No movement. She mutters something, presses clear and repeats the sequence – looks at the gate. No movement.
‘It does not appear to be working,’ she says. ‘Let me see.’
She clears the pad and repeats. Looks. Nothing.
‘Hum. We have been having big problem with this thing,’ she says. ‘They come to fix it and they said it is fixed but it is not working as it should as you can see.’
‘Let me do it again.’
She tips back her head and leans right in to the intercom pad, as if by mere force of will she can make the gate open. She presses clear, and then the sequence of numbers one – at – a – time.
The gate jerks and begins to swing open.
‘I will talk to the man about this in the morning,’ she says. ‘Follow me.’
I pick up the bags and tag along behind her, whilst Rae drives the ambulance forward.


There are four sisters living together here, the oldest in her mid-nineties, the youngest eighty. It’s an extraordinary set-up; a crane must have swung the whole scene intact from some decrepit old semi through the air and slotted it into the space where a luxury bachelor pad should be.
Three of the sisters are waiting for us in the hall, one of them clutching a yellow folder. They cluster round us as we walk in, and Patience, the carer, has to shoo them aside.
‘In here,’ she says. ‘She slipped off the commode. Again. But I do not believe she has hurt herself.’
‘Get her away from me!’ says Mary, glittering under a duvet on the floor.
‘Come now, Mary,’ says Patience, smiling warmly. ‘You know it is only me, and some lovely people who will get you up of the floor.’
Mary has dementia, but there’s a focus to her, a graven chill that gives weight to her words. Patience seems relaxed, though. She turns the abuse aside as easily as the duvet.
‘Mary is the one I am paid to look after. Her sisters are in charge of the medicine.’
We check Mary over, lift her up and put her back to bed.
‘Keep that woman away from me,’ Mary says, then: ‘Can I have a glass of water?’


Whilst I finish the paperwork, corralled by Mary’s sisters in the bedroom, I can hear Rae quietly talking to Patience in the next room.
‘How on earth do you stay sane?’ she asks her. ‘I think you must be a saint.’
‘It’s okay. It’s not too bad. I have known many trouble in my life and this is not like that. I was living in Tanzania and life was good, but then my lovely house it caught fire. My husband was badly burned and I nursed him for a year. When he died I decided to make something new for myself and so I move away. One day I came to this country, and I became a person who cared, because I think this is what I do best. Don’t worry about Mary. She does not really know what she is saying. It is just the sadness in her condition.’

One of Mary’s sisters suddenly rests her hand on my arm. When I look up, she leans in and examines me, her eyes watery and grey.
‘Will you be taking her?’ she says.
‘No. I think she’s all right.’
‘Good,’ she says, squeezing my arm, then turning away again to share the news with her sisters. ‘Good.’


Alan said...

"I became a person who cared..."

I wish we all could say this.

Karen Martin Sampson said...

This post really hit home for me. I took care of my parents for several years in their old age. Both had dementia that gradually worsened but my mother, in particular, became very difficult to deal with. She could be sweet and childlike, and then become abusive and even violent. I had her in five different places for brief times but she would beg to come home and I'd feel so guilty, so I'd bring her home and feel like I was going to lose my mind...called paramedics in the middle of the night many times when she fell and I couldn't get her up and she would break a bone...when she tried to kill my Dad one night I knew she had to go somewhere permanently. The day I moved her she slapped me and told me she hoped my son would do the same to me someday. When I visited later she was happy to see me and remembered nothing...she would go back and forth between sweetness and nastiness. She and Dad are both gone now but it was the hardest part I ever lived through in my life.

jacksofbuxton said...

An apt name.

Spence Kennedy said...

Alan - Sometimes people say things in passing that really strike home...

Karen - So sorry to hear about the terrible time you had caring for your parents, your mother in particular. I've witnessed similar scenes at work from time to time, but still I can hardly imagine how dreadfully stressful and upsetting it must have been for you.

I think those illnesses that directly affect the brain - the patient's very core of being - are the cruellest and most difficult to cope with, particularly for the carers. Losing someone you love is hard enough, but to lose them by degrees like that must be horribly traumatic.

I hope everything's good with you now, Karen. Thank you so much for writing.

Jacks - A made-up name of course. It was something along those lines, so I couldn't resist...

Unknown said...

Hi spence, hope your well.
It's just the sadness in her condition, I think that's such a great way to describe dementia.
Working in care, all but 2 out of 16 residents have dementia of some sort. You do think at times you yourself are going crazy, very difficult to keep your wits about you when you hear the same conversation or sentences constantly repeated. My heart goes out to the families when they come to visit, some don't know who they are, some are nasty, nice, sleepy or chatty. But you can see the pain of most relatives. We don't want to put our loved one's in a home but sometimes you have to make that difficult choice for the best for everyone's safety.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey Carla

Dementia's a tough thing, no question - for the patient, of course, but particularly for the relatives, in lots of cases. Guilt is a huge issue, too, like you say.

It's a very good thing you do, working in those situations! :) x