Sunday 31 October 2010

Hallowe'en Fright

The phone rang a little after midnight. It was from the Care Home. Mum was on her way to Hospital. They told me that she had been throwing up, had suddenly gone very pale and clammy to the touch. They would call again if there was more news.

I arrived at the Hospital in the afternoon. It was alarming to walk in and see Mum looking so altered. She was canted over to one side in bed and looked dishevelled and shrunken. Her left hand was shaking as she pawed distractedly at the cannula fitted to the back of her right. "Hello Mum", I said and she gaped blankly before peering out of the door past me, looking down the corridor to the activity around the administration desk on the unit. After a few more attempts to get her attention I asked her outright if she knew who I was. "You...are...Greg", she said, eventually. She couldn't have looked less interested.

I went to find a chair so I could sit beside her bed. On my return, I noticed that Mum's arm was still shaking and I wondered if she was nervous, so I reached out to hold her hand. As her hand rested in mine, I felt the coldness below and realised that the bedclothes were soaking wet and soiled. The window was open and Mum was sitting in a draught in her own filth - she wasn't shaking, she was shivering!

I closed the window and called a Nurse into the room. As he went to get someone else to replace the bedlinen, I noticed that Mum's IV drip was empty and that her oxygen mask had slipped. How long had she been like this? How long would she have been left like this until someone had noticed? I began to panic about the future and how I would cope when Mum was more seriously ill.

The Nurse came back in to check on Mum's vital signs. They were low, and he fiddled with the oxygen supply before replacing the mask on Mum's face. I was ushered out of the room while they changed Mum's sheets and gave her a couple of blankets.

The Staff Nurse gave me a rapid summary of Mum's condition and their treatment plan, but his accent was strong and he peppered his talk with so much jargon that I ended up deciding to ask someone else. The other Nurse, who'd brought the clean sheets, was much better - warm and chatty - and both Mum and I warmed up chatting to her whilst she brushed Mum's hair.

She told me that Mum's illness stemmed from an infection in her bowels, brought about by impacted waste which was, in turn, due to constipation. The reason for the constipation was dehydration. She said that anyone brought in from a Care Home was always dehydrated - they just don't push sufficient liquids in these places. She told me that the Hospital had given Mum a couple of enemas to stimulate a bowel movement and had performed an endoscopy to inspect her inflamed innards. She thought Mum would be here a few days yet.

By the time I had to leave, Mum was doing much better and I didn't feel quite so conflicted about leaving her as I had before. I believe my visit helped the staff see that Mum wasn't some unwanted husk. Someone cared how she was doing.

A close friend just told me: "it's a good thing you were there for her today". And for once I feel able to accept that I have done something good for Mum.

Thursday 14 October 2010


I'm let onto the household by F, a jovial Zimbabwean care worker, and we walk up together towards Mum. I see her looking at us both blankly, her mouth hanging open. I know she's been told I'm coming but I'm curious to see if she'll recognise me. Nothing. A few steps away, I relent and say "Hello Mum". She checks both my face and F's face before deciding that it was me who spoke. Then she beams.

It's her 82nd Birthday, and we admire the flowers sent by my Brother-in-law, open the cards that have come (significantly fewer this year, but still treasured). Then I open the huge box of clothes I've brought. I spent last night sewing labels into each and every one, and I've taken photos of them all. I'll be interested to see how long they remain in her wardrobe.

After lunch (and much birthday cake), I take Mum downstairs for a hair appointment. When the hairdresser is ready for us, I help Mum over to the  washing station, noting that the seat she's been sitting on is now soaking wet. Mum is oblivious, and I wait until her attention is elsewhere before I find some paper towels and set about cleaning up. Dementia is like being a passenger in an aircraft coming in to land through cloud: it's rarely a smooth descent and there's no indication of how quickly the ground is racing up to meet you. This wet seat hits me like a little air-pocket.

Back on the household, F tells me that my visit has made his day and that what I've done for my Mum has warmed his heart. I'm always at a loss to respond when someone praises me like this. It's not as if I'm looking after Mum personally at home - that would be heroic. I feel guilty for accepting his high regard.

I'm not the pilot, I'm just another passenger on the plane.