Sunshine Doesn’t Last Forever
Once a month I run a reading group in a care home. I’m not allowed to read to individuals in their own rooms, which saddens me as I know there are many who would really enjoy that, because that’s against the rules as I have no DBS clearance. Well, actually, I do have clearance, at the enhanced level no less, for my role as Reader minister, and I have the same clearance for my work with New Wine ministries, but that doesn’t count with the care home because it, like all organisations, has to undertake its own DBS checks. (If you’re reading this and wondering about DBS – it stands for ‘Disclosure and Barring Service’ and replaced the Criminal Records Bureau). The whole process is supposedly in place to weed out those individuals who have ill intentions towards those who are vulnerable. Not that it can really do that – as it can only found out about those who have police records, including cautions, so the clever ones who haven’t ever been caught can still carry on doing what they’re doing. I could wax lyrical about what I think is wrong with this system but I won’t (for now anyway!). I don’t apportion blame to the care home for not allowing me to visit individuals – they are following vulnerable adult policies. That is laudable in itself. However, in our zeal to protect (and quite rightly those who are vulnerable deserve our protection), I wonder if we are forgetting sometimes to balance the needs of the vulnerable to access positive and enriching experiences. It bothers me. We can too easily forget how much pleasure can be gained from simple exchanges with another human being for instance. We can take for granted the rays of sunshine that can pierce an otherwise gloomy day when someone pauses to talk to us, or even briefly smiles at us in passing.
All of the people in my group once had purposeful roles in society – they raised families and ran homes; they held down busy jobs. Among them are retired clergy members; teachers and head-teachers; nurses, midwives, hairdressers, business owners and one delightful lady who was an entertainer for the armed forces. They have not always been frail and, as they refer to themselves, useless. The care staff I come across largely seem to me to be caring sort of people. However, there is something about the way they speak to my friends – the tone, the language used, the facial expressions I observe – that is markedly different from the way they speak with each other and it makes me uncomfortable. My group members have become ‘categorised’ – they are now ‘care home residents’ and as such must be subjected to all that comes with that categorisation. People don’t even seem to notice they’re doing it – moreover, it’s not just acceptable, it’s expected.
“Just sit back down, Jean” one very young assistant said last week, rolling her eyes at her colleague and smirking. This, to an 89 year old woman, who once ran the Home Economics department at the local high school, because she had dared to stand up and try to move a chair as they entered with the tea trolley. Despite the fact that we were in the middle of reading a very moving poem, in a group that has run monthly for over a year, there was no knock on the door and “Who wants tea or coffee?” was called out without so much as an “Excuse me” or even a cursory nod to me, who is reading to the group. Immediately, the tone of the room is altered, the beauty of the words hanging in the air is banished and the members are back in ‘care home resident’ mode making sure they don’t miss out on the only hot drink that will be on offer until tea-time.
Joanna Harris has written some excellent stories about two fabulous elderly ladies who live in “Meadowbank Retirement Home”. Faith and Hope Go Shopping was the first one and can be found in her book ‘Jigs and Reels’. They’re all written in Faith’s voice who displays an indomitable spirit and has formed a friendship with Hope, who is blind, and who was once a university professor. Well, it’s never going to be easy fitting into the categorisation of the nursing home, is it? Especially if your life has been so very different:
“…they try to find things to entertain us, but when you’ve been you’ve been a professor at Cambridge, with theatres and cocktail parties and May Balls and Christmas concerts at King’s, you never really learn to appreciate those Tuesday night bingo games. On the other hand you do learn to appreciate the small pleasures (small pleasures being by far the commonest) because, as some French friend of Hope’s used to say, one can imagine even Sisyphus happy.”
I’ve read a couple of the Faith and Hope stories to my friends in the care home – there is always much laughter and knowing comments, but there’s also a poignancy stemming from a “how did I come to this” feeling that seems to emanate from each of them.
Growing old should bother all of us – it is inevitable, if death, equally inevitable, doesn’t claim us first of course. We talk of growing old gracefully – I wonder what on earth we mean by that? Retaining some integrity? Hanging on to dignity? Accepting with good grace what one can no longer do? Does it have to mean being treated as if we were somehow part of a different section of the human race – less deserving of common courtesies?
Then there’s the business of being a bit naughty. Or defiant. Or obstinate. The chasing of rainbows and the running after butterflies. Or the desiring of ‘unsuitable’ red shoes (You simply must read ‘Faith and Hope Go Shopping’ to get that one!). Or mixing with ‘undesirables’ and even indulging in something a little bit unsavoury. We might never want to do any of these things while we actually can, but what of when we are no longer able – or are prevented from doing?
There’s a wonderful play written by Alan Bennett – especially for and performed on the radio by Thora Hird when she herself was very frail. The subtle but perceptively sharp humour, laced with pathos, is as you might expect from Bennett and you can hear Hird delivering the lines with her acerbically soft tones:
Mr Pilling says, ‘ A grand-looking woman, your daughter.’
I said, ‘You’re not alone in that opinion.’
‘Why,’ he says, ‘who else thinks so?’
I said, ‘She does.’
‘I’m going to read from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.’
There are clues from early on in the piece that all is not right with the way Mr Pilling relates to the vulnerable elderly ladies although if you blink you might miss them, it’s so cleverly done. With so many abuse cases in the media at present, not least the prolific and predatory abuse carried out by Saville, it’s actually a topical piece and there’s something even more disturbing about the issues it raises. I read it some years ago the first time and returning to it recently found myself not being able to get it out of my mind for some time.
Bindra’s just been round with the air freshener when Mr Pilling arrives. Raincoat always neatly folded. Puts it down on the bed. Holds up the Bible. Lovely fingernails. I complimented him on them once and he said ‘Well, its not something I would want broadcasting, Mrs Walker, but I have them manicured. Kelly does them at Salon Snippets and I count it money well spent.’
Never looks at you when he’s doing it. Just concentrates on the words of the New Testament.
Down goes the raincoat, up comes the Bible and away we go.
You can’t help but feel revulsion for what Mr Pilling seems to be up to with the four residents who share their room. When Mrs Walker’s daughter (Mrs Turnbull) makes the discovery, and reports what she observes, she believes her mother’s had a lucky escape but has her eye on a compensation claim. She is taken aback with the response:
‘Not to put too fine a point on it, I like having the tops of my legs stroked, even at my age, and so does Blanche and if there’s a gentleman like Mr Pilling willing to undertake the task and derive pleasure from it then I prefer to think of that not as something disgusting but as God moving in his mysterious way…I shall tell them it was all done of my own free will. We were consenting adults. So you can kiss goodbye to your flaming compensation.
Bindra comes in with the air-freshener. I said, ‘Bindra, I think Mrs Turnbull wants a tissue’.
Shocking? Of course it is. But I wonder if that’s really to do with what is initially an apparent abuse of position or more that an elderly woman is articulating her desire to be intimately touched . And more, that she apparently has no care to who provides what she needs. Was it abuse? It seemed to be at first reading – but there was more going under that raincoat than we first guessed.
It’s what I like about the writing – that it leaves us disturbed and chewing the unthinkable over and over. Actually, there’s a bit of me that really doesn’t want to think about such things. Like when I was a teenager and I heard those noises from my parents through the thin bedroom wall. How could they be doing that? At their age? It was certainly never to be mentioned by them.
So Mrs Walker wants to make the most of the last of the sun – she knows it won’t last forever. While it is shining in our youth we take it for granted. We bathe in its rays and drink of it greedily. But we think of that other species – the old and infirm – as having no right to it. Not only are they categorised as worthy of disdain, but as no longer having a right to express desire. That sort of sunshine apparently must not be allowed to last forever.
 Faith and Hope Fly South in “A Cat, A Hat and A Piece of String” by Joanna Harris
 The Last of the Sun in ‘Untold Stories by Alan Bennett