Monday, 16 November 2015

Rest home sleepover

I’ve always wanted to spend the night at a rest home. A strange ambition but there you go. It’s not as though I haven't visited enough of them. Over the past ten years I’ve spent time in at least a dozen aged care facilities with one or other of my parents. Rest homes, secure dementia units, psychogeriatric wards and hospital level facilities. I’ve visited them all. But I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be in one.

Last week, through a happy series of events, I was offered the chance to stay over at a retirement village, half an hour from home. Me and nine other people, spending time together, observing and reflecting on the experience of being residents, at a rest home.

Inching down the motorway through Friday afternoon traffic, I arrive in a suburb I’ve rarely visited. I park outside a facility I know almost nothing about.

It’s past 5 o’clock and our little group are all late for dinner. We quickly introduce ourselves before heading off to the dining room. Most of the residents already have left. There’s a few stragglers dotted around - just sitting quietly or slowly making their way through the remains of their meal.
It’s old-style hospital food - canned chicken soup, curried eggs, white toast, margarine and apricot jam, with quartered oranges to follow. All served patiently and respectfully by the long-suffering kitchen staff who've stayed late to look after us.

Dinner’s over and we’re summonsed to the sun-bathed conservatory at the other side of the dining room. Three of the night staff have prepared a list of rules for their new, temporary residents.
“No resident is to leave the unit after 9pm or before 7am without signing out.” Health and Safety.
“No bed sharing.” We laugh nervously.
“Staff will check residents, in their rooms, hourly. With torches.”
“And for any misdemeanours…,” reads our care assistant, struggling to keep her face straight. She passes the list to her colleague. “All medication will be administered anally.” They dissolve into girlish giggles.

The staff here are welcoming, warm and hilarious. They are also calm, skilled and professional. For some, caregiving is a family tradition - across three generations.

At first, our fellow residents are deferential. They keep their eyes down or smile shyly, moving aside to let us pass. Close in, they’re chatty as anything. One smiley resident tells me she’s exhausted. “Yesterday,” she confides, “I was filmed for TV!” The frail elderly man who shares her table is pretty on to it. He’s convalescing after surgery, having broken his hip in a fall at home. I learn about the complexities of fractures involving ball joints.
Later, in the corridor, I bump into a fit-looking older man. We pass and repass each other several times. “Obviously we’re both looking for something,” he jokes. Turns out he’s lost his bath towel. I’ve lost track of the exit. We introduce ourselves. He tells me he doesn't understand why he’s there. “It’s not like I have dementia or something.”

The sleep-over group exchange the heat of the rest home for the crisp air of early evening. We talk and walk around the beautiful gardens. Beside the roads that wind through the village it’s all tidy beds of flowering roses and rhododendrons. Further afield we pass allotments and free-standing cottages with bright gardens spilling out over steps and paths.

When we return to the rest home it’s supper time. Those not already in bed are slowly making their way to their rooms. It’s 7.30 and the sky’s still light. Our little group mostly decline offers of Milo and muffins. Chatting in a windowed nook just beyond the bedroom area we close the firedoor so as not to disturb the other residents. Only to find we’ve locked ourselves out. Good-humoured staff come to our rescue.

It's time for bed. Only 10 o'clock but it feels incredibly late. We make our way down the long corridor to our rooms, each one carefully labelled with our name. The toilet is opposite mine. Cautiously, I open the door marked Ladies. The large white space is spotless. No pictures or mirrors - just a handbasin, paper towel dispenser and a call button on a long cord, draped within easy reach of the toilet.

I cross back to my room. It’s like a nun’s cell. Monastic and bare. There’s a narrow single bed, a wall-mounted shelf alongside, a handbasin and a built-in wardrobe/chest of drawers. A fashionably retro flower painting prettifies the long wall. There’s nothing else but a small desk without a chair.
My room is warm and bath-like, too hot for bedclothes. I open the window as wide as it goes and get ready for bed. I rummage for my phone. It’s almost overwhelming, this sudden urge to connect with the outside world. Do the permanent residents feel this too? Do they even have phones or computers?

I hop into bed and gaze round the room, mentally furnishing it and wondering what I’d bring to this tiny space. What I’d leave behind. I wonder who’s slept here before me. Who’s still living and who’s died.
Here I am, in close proximity to more than a dozen people. Some are awake, keeping watch over the corridors and listening for sounds. Others are murmuring, coughing and gently snoring in their rooms nearby. I’m probably as safe as I’ll ever be.
I feel strangely vulnerable. It’s like sleeping by an unlocked door, in a hotel full of strangers. And I can’t shake off a vague feeling of sadness and loss.

Eventually I sleep, waking only once to pull on my dressing gown, crossing the muted light of the corridor to the toilet on the other side. A quiet-footed caregiver greets me as I pass, dimly lit like an usher at the movies.

I’ve forgotten to set my alarm. Morning light seeps through the curtains. I hop up and draw them back. Staff are pulling up to the hospital carpark ready for the handover of the night shift. The sun’s just reaching the roses. They’re blooming like crazy.

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