The nursing home


My mother-in-law is a fiercely independent woman who at 90 still lived in her own home. That is, until the day when she got out of her armchair, took an awkward step and fell. 

For a long time, everyone in the family had the same unspoken fear. ‘What will happen if she has a fall?’ It was like living with a time bomb. The subject was difficult to broach. Jean wanted to stay in her own home and any other suggestion felt like betrayal. Like all of us, she hoped she would go to bed one night and not wake up the next day.

The night Jean fell, she crawled back across the tiled floor to her armchair. She had shattered her hip. Luckily, she had her mobile. Her first call was to her daughter, not 000. By the time the ambulance arrived to take her to hospital, she was out of her mind with pain. The doctors decided to operate, even though they were concerned about the effects of the general anaesthetic. We didn’t think Jean would pull through. She survived the operation but when she awoke, the pain returned with a ferocity that sapped her will to live. She pleaded with us to end her suffering. She didn’t want to go on. It was difficult to watch. We all felt helpless and unprepared. 

When Jean was admitted, her full name and date of birth were recorded. Her legal name is Janet but she has never answered to this name. Everyone calls her either Jean or Jannie. While for years, Jean had doggedly guarded her independence, she nevertheless readily submits to authority. From the moment she was admitted and her full name entered into the medical database, she became Janet, a name she never liked and part of her identity was stripped away. 

After a couple of weeks in hospital, Jean was moved to the acute ward of a much smaller hospital in a country town. She received excellent care and, with some physiotherapy, managed to take a few steps with assistance. There was a short period where she seemed to understand that her only way out of this predicament was to learn to walk again. Unfortunately, this only lasted a week or two before she fell into a depressive state. Once more, she began to talk about wishing to die. Considering the current spotlight on mental health, it surprised me that no psychological help was on offer for her increasingly depressed state of mind.

Jean still talked about returning home. Some days she confided that she no longer had a clear picture of where everything was in the house. This distressed her. I didn’t feel it was my place to burst that bubble. However, with each day spent immobile, the possibility of going home became increasingly remote. During this time, Jean lamented that she could no longer remember certain parts of the house with clarity and this began to really bother her. Her thoughts looped like a coil:  how much she ‘owed’ me for some hand-creme, whether the gardener had cut back the roses in time and when the next instalment of the rates was due. She worried about forgetting the things that still connected her to the outside world so she repeated each of these thoughts over and over in her mind.

After three months in hospital, the hip had healed but Jean hadn’t. Her daughter found a modern, well-resourced aged care facility not too far from where she lives and Jean moved in. 

When I go to see her there, I can’t fault the nursing staff. A genuine culture of care is evident in the way they interact with the residents. The food is quite reasonable and her room is bright and clean. The furniture is stylish and each room has a large television set for entertainment. Jean sits at a large window that faces onto a courtyard where birds can be seen flitting from one tree to another. The view is serene. But it isn’t home.

Jean tells me that one night a man in wheelchair had made his way into her room before staff could come to wheel him away. This frightened her. And sure enough, the same man wheels himself part way through the door while I sit on her bed. He is convinced it is his room. A member of staff arrives and wheels him away, telling him that he won’t find what he is looking for in Janet’s room. 

Jean looks dismayed. ’I mustn’t complain,’ she says as though she is trying to convince herself that everything is as it should be. 

When I walk through the lounge area, a number of the residents are playing a quiz game without much enthusiasm. A carer reads trivia questions and beckons the oldies to answer. 

‘What is the largest city in Africa?’…’No, it’s not Johannesburg.’ 

’That’s right, Nancy, it is Cairo.’ I cringe, recognising a patronising tone that I wish wasn’t there.  ’Don’t worry, I have chocolates for all of you,’ the carer croons as she proceeds to the next question on her list. 

Back in Jean’s room, lunch arrives. She doesn’t like the soup. ‘I’ve gone off pumpkin,’ she says. ‘But there’s no point in telling them what I don’t like, it comes anyway.’ And later, ‘I like the muesli here but I wish the milk was warm. I always heated my milk in the morning.’ It seems like such a small thing but when your life is reduced to meals, bathroom visits and the telly, the smallest things become magnified.

I take some cups to the dining area as Jean is running out of space on her tray. A woman in her 80s, slumped in a wheelchair looks up. She becomes animated as she sees me advance towards her. 

‘Scuse ee, scuse ee,’ she pleads. I see an open notebook resting on her lap. Two phone numbers in spidery writing dance across the page. ‘Phone? You have phone?’, she asks in a thick accent. I don’t. Not on me. She reaches out, holds my hand and I cannot look away. There’s desperation in her eyes. I promise to return with my phone. ’Thank you, thank you,’ she says over and over. ‘ Maria, my name is Maria.’ 

I dial the first number and get a message from Optus. The number is incorrect. I try the second. This time the phone rings. I hand it to Maria with trepidation. Part of me feels I shouldn’t be complicit in this. 

‘Christina? Is Christina? Please come. Take me home. I no like it here. Please Christina.’ Maria is fighting back tears now. ‘Why no, Christina?’ ‘No, he no come.’ Then, ‘Ok, bye.’ She hands back the phone. Now it is my turn to fight back tears. 

 ‘My name’s, Maria. I come from Italy. Three children, I have three children and what you get? Nothing. All the way from Italy. What for? You get old and they treat you like dirt.’ She almost spits this last phrase to get the taste of dirt out of her mouth. I squeeze her shoulder and slowly walk back to Jean’s room. 

Over the next few hours I become acutely aware of the constant noise and movement around me. Jean likes to keep her door slightly ajar. The corridor outside is a busy place where residents come and go, squeaky trolleys are wheeled along and everyone speaks too loudly. Not even the television can mask the commotion. I imagine myself living here. Me, who craves stillness and silence. 

‘The nights are the worst,’ says Jean. ‘I can’t sleep and I can’t have sleeping pills. I just look at the clock and watch the minutes go by.’ 

I take my leave when her evening meal arrives. I plant a kiss on her head and say goodbye. Walking out to the carpark, the sun, lower now, still warms my back. 

It is a long wait until morning.

7 thoughts on “The nursing home”

  1. Viki. So much to take on board. First of all. Your last two pieces were fabulous as usual. Now this. Was it Jean who got accidently locked out of your house? I tried to break in & couldn’t, so invited her to stay with us for the day. She said no. So I ended giving her a chair to sit on, outside yours & checked on her til one of you came home.

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    1. Being “complicit” in the crime had me in stitches! This story reminds me so much of my Aboriginal grandmother. Independent until age 96 when she developed lung problems.
      She told me if the windows would only open and she could get up on her own that she would jump out and end it herself. She thought it so cruel that at 96 her body and mind had lost their will but her impending death could not be consummated at her own will. Luckily it was God’s will a few weeks later.

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  2. In part of my study to find another path in life I had to do a study of aspects of life for people living in aged care. OMG did that open my eyes. My daughter promises she won’t put me there. Well. It might become too hard for them all. I was somewhat shocked when my Belgian friend told me that her family had offered her mother the choice of euthanasia. Then I thought about it. If only suffering is for the indiviual & the family. Death is the only outcome anyway. Why let it endure? Hope that I haven’t upset you


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  3. Hi viki, a perfect rendition of depressing life in a nursing home…I know them mother was in one and then carol’s the way Carol’s mum took seraphs every night…if Jean got a doctor’s prescription?
    A lovely photo of Jean…

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  4. So poignant! It has chrystalised the the thoughts I am having about my own mother, who turns 91 next week. She lives independently in her own home but has developed anemia and is about to begin investigations into the cause. These are the things I worry about. I don’t think my mum would cope with illness and the potential of moving from her home.

    You are an amazing writer, Viktoria! I love everything you write.

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  5. Oh Viktoria, this took me straight back to visiting my mum in the nursing home she lived in for her last 18 months. She used to say: ‘It’s nice here, but it’s not home.’ I think we younger people live indenial that this might happen to us. Was so grateful Mum decided that she wanted to go into care, and be close to my sister who could keep a loving eye on her. I will aim to make my own choices about where I might end up, and to plan ahead. Beautiful, clear and compassionate writing.

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