Saturday, 14 November 2009

‘God’s Waiting Room’

by Harry Riley.

Authors note: I wrote this article whilst the memory was still fresh in my mind and within a few hours of visiting a nursing home. It was my first visit to such a place and made me wonder; ‘is this the best we can do?’

Here, in this big room they sit in rows, hour after hour, mainly women, two-dozen lonely patients, waiting for death, just a small assortment of the nations geriatrics. There is no conversation. Some appear to be asleep with their eyes and mouths wide-open, sad eyes that are glazed over.

The eyes, they say, are the windows to the soul, but these eyes are empty and soulless. Any sign of real life has long since flown. A few of these tired old faces though, with skin that has turned to dried up, powdery and yellowed parchment, look up with vague interest as the three visitors walk into the room. One tries to force a weak smile but mostly their dejected expressions reflect the hopeless abandonment of a busy society.

Blotchy, blue swollen legs are moved with difficulty and wasted arms twitch uncontrollably.

They each wear clothing that was hurriedly thrown over frail bones by someone else and which quite possibly belonged to someone else.

Once these sad creatures were mothers, wives and daughters, cared for, loved and admired. Now they are the unwanted detritus of uncaring society - shut away out of sight and out of mind. Here is the distinct smell of the faeces and urinal, hardly disguised by chemical intervention. Suddenly a clear and articulate voice cuts through the silence, rising hysterically high. ‘Somebody, will somebody please help me?’ There is a tragic desperation about the request as if the speaker is appealing directly to the newcomers.

We must not to make eye contact, there is nothing we can do and it only encourages them to false hope.

Another old lady starts crying pitiably, fidgeting painfully in her chair and then she screams out repeatedly for a nurse. Now there is coughing and choking as half dead bodies are disturbed by the noise and start to writhe about. Wheel chairs begin to spin around aimlessly as their occupant’s frantically jerk into furniture. This is harrowing stuff, a vision of purgatory. Two hard-pressed young nurses run in wearing full body plastic aprons, and their stressed out voices try to quell the uprising. It’s a while before some sort of temporary peace is restored. Unwanted and unobserved, a television has been left switched on in a corner but the sound is turned right down.

The person we have come to see is a woman in her seventieth year. She has dementia and the doctors can do no more for her. We spot her vacant face and empty eyes, among the other women as she sits there, fully dressed, silently enduring and upright in her chair, arms out stretched and resting on her knee’s…starring straight ahead in passive acceptance of her miserable fate. I wonder how long she has been sitting there. She is a close relative and until a year ago we thought she had another ten or fifteen years ahead of her. We help her into a wheelchair, take her up to her room and sit with her as she tries to tell us how she hates this place.

Her bedroom is ‘L’ shaped, with a bed and a wardrobe, two plastic chairs and a commode. The room has flowered wallpaper, the fitted beige carpet is badly stained and this is her home! She was once a schoolteacher with a sharp brain, and she deserves better than this. From somewhere deep in her mind she summons up a few sensible words and appeals for help, ‘Oh, come on…please take me home?’ We know this is impossible.

She has to stay here until the doctors say otherwise. We’ve been told her condition is terminal, a few more weeks or possibly months if her constitution proves stubborn.

She asks to be lifted up so we try and accommodate her by providing her walking frame. She makes a Herculean attempt to rise as I support her weight.

Then we ask where she is going. Eventually she mutters; ‘we are going home” but she cannot move. Her ankles are swollen and there is no strength left in her feeble body to take her anywhere, so we assist her to settle down again in her wheelchair.

We know it’s hopeless but does she? I think not. A fit and healthy person for most of her life: the weight has fallen off her and she has no strength to lift herself up. She’s frustrated and confused, and asks why her mother and father didn’t come with us. They couldn’t come today or any other day for they have been dead for over twenty years. The poisons have gone to her brain. The tears start to come and we have to leave her husband to comfort her. She drinks a lot but cannot eat and just wants to get back in bed and shut out the misery. We must wait for the inevitable end and hope it is not too prolonged.

I am glad to be outside, breathing in the fresh clean air again, away from such misery. This is not some vile Victorian Bedlam but a purpose built nursing home in a modern, civilised country in 2009.

This is one of the better nursing homes, with caring staff that do the best for their patients and she is lucky to have a bed here. I don’t know how the nurses handle this abominable torture day after day. If this is God’s waiting room then where the devil has he gone?

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