Monday, June 27, 2005

Care of the Elderly

Mary Ungwele raised her eyes and sucked her teeth as the buzzer in room twenty-one sounded for the third time that night and a corresponding red bulb on the office wall began its insistent flashing. She was trying to have a conversation on the telephone with her sister in Lagos but the stupid old mkwaze kept calling for assistance. She cursed as she stood and began the long walk down the corridor, her massive body causing the floorboards to bend and creak as she shuffled slowly and reluctantly along. She reached room twenty-one and entered, re-set the alarm and leaned over Doris Hudson who lay half in and half out of her bed.

"Wozrongwidjunow?" It must have been a rhetorical question because Mary, without waiting for an answer, raised a heavy brown arm and struck Doris a backhanded blow across the face with such force that the old woman tumbled to the floor and lay shaking with terror in a spreading pool of her own urine. Mary picked up one of her arms and wrenched it violently, dislocating it at the shoulder, before returning to the office and calling for an ambulance.

The ambulance crew had no reason to doubt the word of the big African nurse who said she'd found the old woman with Alzheimer's lying on the floor when she went on her rounds. Between her screams of pain, Doris was unable to say anything that made any sense, so the crew wrapped her up and took her off to the A & E department at St. Bernard's. Mary Ungwele picked up the telephone and re-dialled the number in Nigeria. Free international phone calls were about the only perk of this job. Tsangaweh to them all!

In the morning, the day staff roused the residents and washed them cursorily before feeding them with cornflakes and thin, milky tea. They were then taken to the television room and sat around the walls in upright chairs with wooden arms. The television was on but the only sound was the booming hip-hop favoured by the exclusively young black female staff that reverberated through the entire building from the big speakers in the lounge. The old women (there were no men - they seemed to have the good sense to die before it came to this) watched Eamonn Holmes but what they heard was something like hey yo mutherfuckin gangstah niggah mutherfuckin' uzi niggah killah muthafuckah, which resonated with very little meaning in the minds of the Vera Lynn generation forced to endure it.

Conversation was out of the question, so they just sat there like stuffed specimens, their glassy eyes staring blankly at the TV screen, their hearing aids turned off if they were fortunate enough to wear them, waiting for their next cup of tea and maybe a stale biscuit at about eleven o'clock.

Those whose minds still functioned had only the refuge of their treasured memories of youth in which to take shelter from this living hell as they waited, waited, waited - for lunch, for tea, for bed, for breakfast, for a cup of tea, for a biscuit, for the next day, and for the one after that, and then for another, maybe a visit this month from Bob and Joan - praying all the while, every one of them, only for the release of death.