A woman in her thirties puts the phone down. She rests her chin on her hand, her smile fading, a sigh escaping…
That’s the third time she’s phoned tonight: my grandmother. She wants to know if her rent’s paid. I’ve told her it is. It always is. She couldn’t live like people do now; all that debt. Would drive her clean round the bend. Instead it’s us she’s driving round the bend: ‘Do you know, is my rent paid love?’ So I told her, ‘Don’t worry about it grandma, it’s all paid and dad’s coming up on Thursday to pay the next two weeks.’ But still she worries. Five minutes later she’s on the phone again: ‘Do you know, is my rent paid love?’ So I reassure her, tell her dad’ll be up soon. She won’t let him set up a direct debit, no, never paid that way before. She’ll pay same way as always, by cash. But it isn’t the same is it? No rent man knocking on her door now. Would’ve been someone to talk to an’ all. The tragedy of longevity; how isolating to outlive all your friends.
It’s cruel. She’s not daft at all. No dementia, she just can’t remember things. Some short circuit in the short term memory; so she phones me again, ‘Do you know, is my rent paid love?’ and what can I say? ‘Don’t worry about it grandma, it’s all paid and dad’s coming up on Thursday to pay the next two weeks.’ She can’t forget the things she’d like to, can’t remember the things she needs to. One corroded connection making it hard to relax, unable to follow a television programme, impossible to enjoy a good book. All those things she loved, and all she has now are the old memories, fading with time; but the bad ones are seared into her mind. She remembers the war and rations, worrying for her brothers overseas. She remembers losing family members one by one. She remembers her youngest in hospital nine months and him not yet three years old. He still bears the scars, and so does she. All this she remembers, but not whether her rent’s paid.
So she lives in fear now: fear of debt, the ultimate shame; fear of dependence; fear of being a burden and losing control; fear of losing her mind. We visit and she tells the same stories, her life shrunken, reduced to the four walls that fold in on her. We try to clean up a bit. The flat’s not dirty, it’s not that she isn’t house proud, it’s just… she doesn’t see so well. She doesn’t notice the flower petals fallen behind the sofa, the crumbs on the floor or the bits of dried food crusted onto some of the pots. She remains blind to the fact that she doesn’t see. Our cleaning is an affront, an insult to her capabilities. She hasn’t seen an optician this side of the millennium, or the decade before. I don’t hold out much hope for the next decade now either. With every passing year she has another excuse, ‘There’s no point at my age is there?’ Says she can still read so where’s the problem. I don’t point out the toothpaste down her top. I’m not here to humiliate her… Besides, she’ll tear a strip of me if I dare to contradict her — just like she does with my dad.
And she’s right; she can still read… just. Of course, she keeps reading the same book over because she forgets she already read it, and she still doesn’t know what the story’s about ’cause she forgets who’s who. Mind, don’t we all with some of the convoluted puzzles that pass for a novel these days. I bought her a magnified sheet to lay over the newspaper. She loved it. Light, easy to hold, big so you don’t have to keep moving it across the print… but she put it down and now she can’t see it. Well it’s see through isn’t it. Probably been sitting on it this past week. So modern isn’t always the best. At least her magnifying glass has a coloured handle and a metal rim, even if it is heavy, even if she does have to keep moving it along the page.
She used to knit. Beautiful Arran jumpers; intricate cable knits. She clothed her family, friends, grandchildren… Knitting like a demon, the fasted needles in Borrowdale. Not now. She can’t knit anymore. Too fiddly, her hands paining her with the arthritis. It’s not bad really, just bad enough. And everything’s smaller these days: cameras, newsprint, computers, knitting needles, pill bottles. They’re the worst. All these old folk on a rattle of tablets a day and they can’t even open the bottles. Whoever thought of such a design? Only children have fingers small enough—and agile enough—to work that system of arrows, pushing and twisting. Child proof? More like adult proof, arthritis proof. It’s the last cruel joke of the able on those of dwindling capacity. Or maybe they anticipated the memory loss so made it harder to open the bottle, harder to overdose. She lays them out in a bowl every morning as she’s always done. Only difference is, she takes them then forgets, so she thinks she put them up wrong and starts again, takes too many. Or forgets to take them at all.
We talked to the pharmacist and worked out a solution. Grandma wasn’t best pleased. We talked ourselves round in circles but she wouldn’t agree to the pharmacist putting the pills up in weekly packs, each day split into allotted times and the tablets in easy open foil wrap that arthritic fingers can manage. Oh no. She’s not daft and didn’t she let us know it. Well, we finally talked her round but before the first delivery, my grandmother, who hasn’t ventured further than her front door in years, marched down to the Chemist’s and cancelled the order, told him her family were interfering. So she keeps on taking the odd pill too many, the odd pill too few, and worrying and counting and wondering if she put them up right.
Her sister in law’s done her shopping for years. She’s young and sprightly, being only seventy nine. She’s the one as collects the prescriptions too. They’re as bad as each other mind. Lil says ‘It’s nay bother’. A woman of few words. She’s been doing it for other family members since her husband upped and off a lifetime ago and now there’s only grandma left. We thought with Lil being taken into hospital we’d get some formal help in. As if… Grandma still sees herself as independent; and fiercely so. So me dad and me Aunty Pat take it in turns, up the motorway, get the shopping in, fight and argue for a few days then home. They’re both stressed half to death. No matter what they say or what they do, it’s not right. Grandma says ‘A’ll sort things.’ How can we leave her though? I think she’s gonna drive the pair of them into early graves the rate she’s going. Of course, she doesn’t want to be a burden. If she could only see it. She forgets we live so far away. She’s in Carlisle. Home of the Border Reivers. Aye, home of the border raver more like.
We asked her to come and live here: ‘Oh I don’t want to be a burden on my family, I know what that’s like.’ So we worry; up and down the motorway. She hasn’t sorted anything and still argues with my dad till they’re both blue in the face. She won’t let him help. So it goes on; up and down the motorway. I don’t know how much more my dad can take. He swings between exasperation and desperation; a man helpless to help. The stress of my grandmother not being a burden is wearing him down.
She’ll be ninety soon. That’ll be another fight. We’ve organised a party. I’m doing the cake, and there’ll be ninety candles even if they burn her eyebrows off. The whole family will be there, which isn’t so many, only twenty of us. That’s if we can get her down here. It’s always a fight to get her down here. She seems so depressed but the doctor won’t visit unless she’s called by the patient and we’re powerless. She’s like a husk sometimes; no joy. I hope she comes down. She came alive last time, playing with Dan. He’s five and accepts her how she is, no worries. He speaks to her on the phone and I hear her laugh and it’s like gold that sound. That’s all we want to bring back. Why does she see us as such a threat?
Well, she hasn’t called in a while now. Hope she’s alright. Truth be known I’m a bit worried about her. Maybe I’ll give her a quick call. God knows she must be lonely…
The woman picks up the phone and starts to dial the number…
About The Generation Game
First and foremost this is for my grandma who died recently little more than a month before her 94th birthday. She was still living at home, more or less on her own terms. It’s also for my dad who bent over backwards to make that happen.
With this piece I attempt to show the difficulties faced by the families of elderly people when dealing with the ageing process and resultant fall out. I have written from the perspective of a family member – someone on the periphery of the situation who is able to see the effect of the situation on the different people involved, but who focusses mainly on the grandmother. I am trying to show the love and frustration experienced by a family as they try to help an independent matriarch to continue living on her own terms whilst providing snippets of information about her life.
© Ammie-oy 2010