On Thursday I put my mum into a nursing home. It did not go well.
The human mind is a strange beast. Even in the absence of dementia (and I don’t think I qualify for a diagnosis just yet, although sometimes it certainly feels as though I do) , the brain tends to paper over the cracks of reality and try to shoehorn the world into something that makes sense.
So even though my mother doesn’t know who I am… even though she talks about how she lives with her parents (who have been dead for over 30 years)… even though she says we went to school together… even though she had 3 raw sausages and a handful of strawberries in the microwave and was calling them dinner… even though she forgets that my dad is dead… even though she says the same things a hundred times in one 10 minute conversation – each time thinking it’s the first… I thought she was in some way still… her. Still… I don’t know… normal, for some twisted and barely comprehensible meaning of the word.
So the morning I put her into the nursing home, I dropped by her house around 10am, and told her that we had bought her a treat. That we were taking her to a hotel for a few days, so that she could enjoy some luxury. And it was plausible, because the nursing home really looks like a hotel. Things have certainly changed in the aged care industry.
She was excited, and happily fussed about, trying to get ready, and wondering what to pack. “It’s so unexpected, I didn’t know this was coming, did I?” she would say, at least once a minute. I’d reassure her it was a surprise, she’d shove something random into the back and then say “Gosh! You’ve thrown me. I didn’t forget, did I? I didn’t know this was coming?”
So far it was going better than I expected. “We’re just going to stop at a cafe, mum, until the room is ready.” “Oooh, lovely! Are we going to your place?” “No, we’re just going to a cafe, then to the hotel.” “Ah! Ok. Are we going to your place?” and so on, around the merry go round.
While we waited for our coffees, my husband, Andrew, took some key photos and personal things to the nursing home, to try to setup the room to look familiar.
“I’m a bit flustered. What’s going on? I didn’t know this was coming, did I?”
As Mum got more agitated, I texted Andrew. “Run for it, she’s getting anxious, we have to move.”
The home staff could not have been nicer. They got us a cup of tea, while Mum admired the decor and said how posh it looked. But when we got to her room, things started to go rapidly downhill.
“Why is there a single bed? Where will you be? I don’t want to stay here on my own!” the questions were coming thick and fast, and she was starting to get really freaked out.
“I want to go home! You can’t keep me here!! Take me home! My parents will come and get me!”
The staff came to try to help me settle her, and brought us another cup of tea. Typically, now the threats came. “I’m going to call the cops! I’m going to tell them you brought me here without my consent. WHICH IS A FACT! You can’t keep me here! I’m not sleeping in a single bed! I’ll fall out of it! THIS IS CRUEL. HOW COULD YOU LEAVE ME HERE ALONE? This is so cruel. How could you want to leave me here alone? I’m not nuts. I’m going to call the cops. You’d better take me home, or I’ll call the cops!”
And on it went.
A truly lovely staff member named Lea came and persuaded Mum to go to lunch before she came home. She settled at a table with a lovely old guy and was soon chatting happily, but every time she looked at me she got agitated and started shouting about how she wasn’t staying. I made an excuse to get up from the table and suggested to the staff that I should go. In a move worthy of a slapstick comedy, the staff sneaked me out while mum wasn’t looking, and I scuttled downstairs feeling like a criminal.
Lea looked at me as the tears started to flow and said “Don’t you worry. This isn’t unusual. You might have to bring her in 5 or 6 times before it works.”
The horror of that vision nailed me to the floor. I had barely survived doing it once. No way could I do it again.
Hold every memory as you go
And every road you take, will always lead you home, home
And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again
We’ve come a long way from where we began
Oh, I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again
When I see you again
There followed days of screaming and trauma. I was craven – I didn’t go back. My sisters spent a lot of time there, and when someone is with her she is generally almost calm, but constantly asking when her parents will come to get her. Left to herself, though, she freaks out. Nights are the worst, but there’s no actual good time. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s only been a few days. It can take weeks for a new patient to settle. There’s hope.
But now I know how much my own brain has been papering over the cracks in my Mum’s behaviour. This frightened child – crying for her parents to come and rescue her, while she shouts about calling the cops – this is not my Mum. I knew she was impaired. I knew there wasn’t much left. But I really wasn’t prepared for the descent into madness that the unfamiliar surroundings would trigger.
She wasn’t safe in her own home. This is the best possible place for her now. But it feels as though the only thing left that was truly her was bound to the shell of her home. Taking her out of her home feels as though, in trying to save her, we have lost her completely.