Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Lifestyle Village

This is my manuscript for a book about my experiences working in aged care. Most of the content is finished but the text is still being polished and a couple of extra chapters might be added.

To read them in order, use the chapter headings at the right. You can also read the latest version at http://www.authonomy.com/books/33488/the-lifestyle-village/

Elisa

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mara vs Ruby: Round 2

Mara and Ruby were two of our more assertive residents, and if you don't remember them from the newspaper clash, well, let's just say that they were never destined to be friends.

Round two were the courtyards. Mara and Ruby lived side-by-side, and Mara began finding mandarin peels and apple cores in her courtyard all the time. No prizes for guessing who was throwing rubbish over the fence. Never caught in the act, mind you. This was shaping up better than a daytime soap.

Next, a trademan's van was parked in the area, and people started walking in and out of Mara's apartment. She explained to me that she was having new curtains fitted. Apparently Ruby had been spying on her. Holy Mackerel, this was getting ridiculous. But it wasn't over by a longshot. When I took breakfast to Ruby one morning, she had the television on. Loud. At 7am. I wondered if it was bothering neighbours, and then remembered that Mara was the only one not deaf, and she was already awake by 7, so I let it go.

But another morning it wasn't the tv, it was a language tape. At blaring volume a French man was enquiring about directions to get to the train station. It was one of the ones where you're supposed to listen and repeat what they say. It wasn't beginner level - I know enough French that I could tell this was an intermediate lesson. I smiled at Ruby, and instead of repeating what the man had said, I told her in French, "take the second street on the left and then go down the first street on the right, and the station is right there." She stared at me in total disbelief and had obviously not understood a single word I said. I asked her why she had such a difficult tape if she was just learning. She stammered something about having finished the learner tape already. Sure you have, I thought. Strange behaviour going on here.

At lunch, Ruby wasn't in, but the tables were discussing her. Anne thought she had found herself a man! This was hot gossip indeed. Anne reported that she had definitely heard a man in the room talking to Ruby. So she must have a gentleman friend, and at such an early time he must have slept overnight in her apartment, and wasn't that just disgusting!? The tablemates were horrified, all except for Mara. "There isn't any man!" she exclaimed in disgust. "She borrowed a tape from Ransa. It's a language tape." The others took that in and began to laugh at their mistake. Mara was not impressed. I took the opportunity to ask Mara why she had borrowed something so difficult, and recounted the morning's exchange with Ruby not understanding me.

"Because she isn't learning French, that's why!" she near-shouted. This stopped all conversation and the attention was back on Mara. "She's trying to get back at me for the newspaper. Every morning for two weeks she's blasted me with something noisy. This tape is loud enough for me to learn it myself. 'OO-SUH-TROOVE-LE-STADE-SI-VOO-PLAY-MESSURE.' It makes me furious!"

It was all I could do not to laugh. I really, really hoped that Mara had learned some French at school somewhere, because she had just asked a correct question on where she would find the sports stadium. It was beyond disturbing for someone to learn French through a solid double-brick wall.

Alas, the triumphant final battle was not to be. Ruby began telling people that she was leaving. Leaving? People don't move out of here to somewhere else, unless it's to more appropriate care. But Ruby had found an apartment in a cheaper complex and decided to make the shift. I asked Mara, tongue-in-cheek, if she was sad about her best friend leaving.

"Well, she's been out on the bus every day this week," she said, "and I know that because she has to walk past my window each time. So I always know when she is out." I really pushed my luck then, when I jokingly asked if she stood at the curtains peeking out, and was astoundingly rewarded with a laugh. Mara laughing with me! She must be extremely relieved to get rid of her arch-nemesis, if she could tolerate a lowly kitchen staffer poking fun at her.

"Yes, that's me, one eye to the gap in my brand new curtains," she said with a grin. "I won't be shedding tears when she leaves for the last time, let me tell you. I'm just keeping sentry duty there to make sure I don't miss it when it finally happens. And then I'm bringing wine to dinner that night. I might even dance."

The rest of my shift had me trying to imagine the cranky old stick-in-the-mud dancing. Try as I might, I failed to conjure that image.

Fish on Fridays

Nora once told me that Friday's lunch was the her favourite part of the week. I hadn't thought of it that way, but I guess it was like a party - my kids loved Fridays because dinner was leftover Fish and Chips - Nora, Marlene, and the others, loved it because there was wine.

Marlene is well... how to describe Marlene... she is unfailingly polite, as if eternally grateful that we're working here. Like Nora, she is a chainsmoker, and she doesn't always seem to be "all there". She almost looks like a caricature of herself: round circles of red rouge on either cheek, bright red lipstick, lashings of blue eyeshadow and permed hair. Marlene is up and out of the village every morning after breakfast. Where, I hadn't a clue, but it was her daily routine, and she was never present for lunch - except on Fridays. Every Friday was Fish and Chips. There was only one resident who turned it down. (It was Dawn, the round lady with her chin permanently on her chest, and she always had a slice of Thursday's left-over meatloaf instead. Shudder.)

It was one glass per resident, which we poured in advance and took in trays to the dining rooms. It wasn't usually my job to serve Marlene's dining room, but one day there was a new girl and I grudgingly agreed not to send the poor lamb to the slaughter make her job difficult by subjecting her to Barrett and the Royale. So we swapped.

I had only just given out the wine in the Barrett dining room when Marlene asked for another. This was new to me... but why not, so I went back to the kitchen to get more. It was only after finishing dessert that I overheard another resident also giving her glass of wine to Marlene. Oh, dear. This was not going to be good - she sometimes reminds me of a miniature Hunchback of Notre Dame who shuffles along unsteadily, grinning from clown makeup.

I spoke to Maria about it, who agreed that while they were adults, we kinda had a responsibility not to get them sloshed on a Friday afternoon. Maria, in turn, asked the residents not to hand their wine around to each other. Problem solved, right? Wrong.

The following Friday I turned down Marlene's request for more wine, using the porky pie that we'd been told we weren't allowed. She looked utterly crestfallen. But it turned out she had planned in advance anyway! Sweet Bette, who wasn't a drinker, had today asked for a glass - which she handed to Marlene later. (It's not like she'd have remembered not to, anyway.) Several other residents were only too happy to also give theirs to Marlene. As far as we can guess, she managed to get four glasses down in less than half an hour.

Maria found her sprawled in a Barrett hallway, with her skirt hiked all the way up, wearing red high heels and stockings with suspenders, and giggling non stop.

Bus trips

The residents in the village have fairly active social lives. It's a great thing, and something I'm trying to make more people aware of - there are far too many older people remaining in their huge family homes, unable to cook and clean for themselves properly, and camped alone in front of the tv, with only daytime soap stars for company.

Contrast that to our village. The less active among them head into the communal lounge areas, or meet in each others' apartments for a cup of tea and a catch-up. Even the meal times are a social event. Nobody is ever lonely in this place unless they want to be.

A few people socialise outside the village, and it's mainly the younger, fitter ones. Ted puts a bet on the horses now and then, and toddles off to church every Sunday. Ransa is a regular volunteer of some sort (I'm not sure where, but she mentions "reading to the ladies", so perhaps it's a nursing home). We always know when Elsie is going out for the day, because she will refuse to drink any liquids at breakfast time. Wouldn't want to have to locate a public toilet during an errand, would we?

Doris, the amputee, should probably be one person who doesn't venture far. But she is a real social butterfly. She has a veritable army of friends who are either visiting for Sunday lunch, or taking her out for coffee. Her favourite café is one in a neighbouring suburb; I know which one, because she brings me their home-made chocolates after every outing there.

Then we have the bus trips. Once a month we book a bus and take them on some outing. The destinations are always somewhere obscure or else sound boring - the only way to gather interest is to take them somewhere they haven't been, and everyone has been to see most local tourist attractions over the course of the last 75 years.

One month they were going to see some heritage garden, then heading for a picnic on a beach boardwalk. Yawn yawn, so I wasn't too upset that I had to stay at the village while Carlotta got to go. The morning was a hectic foodfight in the kitchen, preparing sandwiches to go, thermoses of coffee, and all manner of takeaway delicacies in plastic containers.

By contrast, once the bus left, the place was quiet and very calm. Lunch was a sandwich platter - no messing around with cutlery or desserts - all very cruisy and peaceful. Until the bus returned, and the chatter was like an electric current.

Nora had suffered a Terrible Accident, oh wasn't it terrible, did you see it? and was it terrible? and on and on and on went the village grapevine. I sought out Carlotta to get the scoop.

Nora, it emerged, had merely tripped up the bus stairs, right after the first stop. I don't make light of her injuries - she is old and frail, and took a large amount of skin from her shins, making quite a mess with the blood - but she would certainly survive. But the Oscar-winning performance was from dearest Marjorie, who happened to be sitting in the front seat and witnessed the calamity unfold.

Carlotta had been helping "herd" other residents towards the bus and didn't get to see the fall. The first she knew of it was the moan and the heap at the bottom of the bus door. And then Marjorie began her refrain. "She went down! Down like a sack of potatoes! It was awful! She looked just like a sack of potatoes!"

Marjorie, of course, promptly forgot what she'd seen. People were all discussing that Marjorie had witnessed the event, but when asked what happened to Nora, she just gave them a blank stare. It didn't matter how many people asked, she hadn't a clue what they were asking about. It was only later in the week that someone else commented they'd had a fall, "but not nearly as badly as poor Nora on the bus!", that Marjorie seemed to awaken.

"She went down! Down like a sack of potatoes!" yelled Marjorie from her solo spot at the corner table. "We're having baked potatoes for lunch today. That's what she looked like, just like a sack of potatoes."

Mara vs Ruby

Now Mara, as I have indicated, is a Bitch. Some might simply call her "wealthy and discerning". The thing is, she doesn't carry that air of royalty about her. She rarely seems to be happy though, with the service provided, and she is always the one to mobilise her neighbours and make a complaint. She is about 85, and does everything for herself, but is slow and purposeful and watchful, almost as if she wants something to be wrong so that she can make another complaint. One of those people who seem to enjoy being miserable.

Mara has a newspaper delivered every day. The newsagent writes the resident's name on each one and puts the papers in the Royale's lounge area, because it's the closest room to the street that he can access at 5am each morning. Most of the residents are in there fairly early to collect them, and only a couple of papers are still waiting for their owners by 9am.

In a village with this many people, things don't always run perfectly. Sometimes the pharmacy is late delivering headache tablets. Sometimes the caterer brings an extra container of cranberry sauce. Sometimes, a paper would be missing. These things happen. We paid little attention to it and just advised the owners of the missing papers to get in touch with the newsagent.

But over time it became just one person's paper missing - Mara's. And she was Not Happy, complaining that the papers were being left in an unsecure area, and that the newsagent insisted it was being delivered, so that it must be being stolen. I believed the newsagent - one phone call from Mara would have been memorable enough for him to check specifically for her paper as he delivered each morning. So being fairly active, she began staking out the lounge room, and whom should she catch trying to return her paper at 7am but Ruby, thinking nobody would find out she'd been reading it.

Ruby and Mara are next-door neighbours. This was not going to be pretty.

Mara confronted Ruby and said, "If you want to share my paper, you can pay half the cost of it." This, I thought, was very generous and accomodating of Mara. It was quite unlike her. The Mara I knew should have simply boiled over in fury for the theft. But Ruby was indignant and not having any of this idea, claiming that she hadn't been stealing the paper, but that she had only accidentally taken the wrong paper that day. Funny, someone had accidentally taken Mara's paper every day for weeks. I wonder whom it could have been! Silly Ruby. A half price newspaper was a good deal. Apparently that was still more than "free" and so not of interest for her at all.

And so it began. Ruby had a habit of collecting the unwanted cakes, biscuits and fruit from other tables' serving plates at each mealtime, wrapping them in a napkin and taking them to her room. Mara dug her heels in, and began telling her entire table to either eat them or put them on their own plates, simply to stop Ruby getting them. Her tablemates did as she asked. Ruby scowled a lot in that direction. A great deal of food ended up in the rubbish while Mara kept her smirk in place.

I was sure that the next round could happen at any time. And I sincerely hoped that when the proverbial **** hit the fan, that I was somewhere nearby in a ringside seat.

Lola's Holiday

You may recall Lola's last appearance in regards to copious amounts of Tim Tam chocolate biscuits. A few weeks later Lola had a fall in the dining room. She hit her head and was bleeding, so an ambulance took her to hospital. We then didn't see Lola for about two months. I wondered what could have been wrong. (I never did find out, but then, elderly people tend to get kept in hospital for extra days just because. Doctors probably assume that they don't get any care once they leave.) It's relatively common for a resident to go to hospital on an emergency trip and then just never return - not that they die, but they either stay on for months there or go to rehabilitation to relearn to walk, or go to respite care in a nursing home until they get their strength back, or they get a permanent nursing home bed. Their dinner-table seat sits there, empty, with the kitchen staff vaguely aware that they've gone for good. And Lola was gone for so long that she became one of the ones we sorta didn't expect to return.

So one day as I did the rounds, I got a huge shock to find Lola sitting quietly and expectantly in her chair, waiting for her soup. "Oh, Lola!" I exclaimed, "it's so good to see you! You look great!"

She smiled demurely and nodded her thanks, and said, "It's good to see you too!" And we were just smiling at each other for a moment, and I thought everything was good again, since people returning from hospital usually seem to be in better shape than when they left. And she really did look well. Her skin was glowing and she looked more alert, she had a nice outfit on, and a little makeup, and she looked infinitely more healthy than I could remember her ever looking. The time in hospital had been very good to her. And then suddenly she added, "Where have I been that you haven't seen me?"

It took me a second to recover, and realise that she didn't remember two months in hospital. I managed to mumble that I'd been busy and had time off work. Beside her, Mara was smirking a self-satisfied grin at my expense. Lola finished her food in record time and was gone before dessert. As I handed out jelly and ice-cream, Mara had a conspiratory whisper ready for me. "Dennis told her earlier that he was glad she was back from hospital," she began. "Lola thanked him for his concern, then politely told him she hadn't been to the hospital and she was quite fine, thank you." Before I could react, she had started her next bit of news. "And her son has been to visit her," she intoned.

"He brought her a bunch of flowers, and a packet of Tim Tams."

Someone's thirsty

Ruby is an active lady who is always off and doing something or other. She has her own courtyard and it is filled with flowers, and she can often be seen there with her watering can and a smile. She seems way too young to need this place, being perhaps in her late 50s or early 60s. She is obsessed with good health and frequently asks for extra of the healthy items, for instance, an extra piece of fruit, or more salad on her plate.

Around July, we started running out of orange juice every week. The kitchen supervisor remonstrated the staff for drinking it. Most of the staff looked at each other in disbelief, wondering how a few glasses of orange juice warranted a lecture, and why the supervisor didn't just order a few extra litres. And then the milk and cereal started running out. Carlotta had to run to the corner shop one morning when it became apparent there wasn't enough milk for everyone's cereal. Again, the reaction was to chastise the staff for drinking the milk and taking the cereal, and then for taking the bread. My goodness, this was getting ridiculous. What staff member needed food that badly that they were taking bread and cereal home, we wondered. The last thing we suspected was a resident. They get their meals included anyway - a full breakfast, a hot lunch, three courses at dinner, morning and afternoon tea with cake and biscuits - why would they need extra food?

One staff member was a bit more clever than the rest of us. Alison resented being blamed for the theft, and so she did some thinking. It was only the Royale's bar area which always seemed to run out - even though the staff spent very little time there. And Ruby, living close to the lounge area, had spent way too much time there of late, always with some other legitimate reason, like washing her cutlery - when she had her own kitchen. So she became the suspect for the missing food. The kitchen supervisor put a lock on the bar fridge.

We couldn't prove who was taking it of course, so we just put up with the inconvenience of the lock, and got on with life. The next week we had eight litres each of orange juice and milk left  over. Sheesh - Ruby had been drinking eight litres of each, per week.

The Tim Tam queen

Lola at first glance seems to be a quite proper lady. She never makes any demands and is always very polite. We tend to think of the undemanding ones as the ones that are all ok in the head. But Lola isn't quite all there, and I have forgotten this a couple of times. Really, someone who looks very intelligent, who nods in understanding at everything you say, can fool a lot of people.

A few months back Lola stopped coming to lunch. This wasn't completely unusual, since Lola is terrible with awareness of time. If she hadn't come to lunch I had just assumed the carers would take her a sandwich later on. But then they started telling me that Lola had called in advance. "Lola says she isn't hungry today. She'll have a cup of coffee in her room instead." And it became more and more frequent.

At lunch time I remarked to her tablemate, Mara (bitch extraordinaire) that we wouldn't be seeing Lola today at the table. Mara looked at me as if she were the headmistress holding the cane over an unruly child's buttocks. "She's up there with three packets of Tim Tams," she sneered disdainfully. "She eats nothing but blasted Tim Tams when her son has been for a visit."

I didn't quite know how to take this. These people are grown adults. Are we supposed to tell someone they're not allowed to eat three packets of chocolate-covered, chocolate-cream filled biscuits for lunch? I asked Maria, the carer on duty.

"Oh dear," she said, "that isn't good. I'll go up and see her now." Maria accordingly went up to visit, and sure enough, there was Lola in front of the TV with a plate of Tim Tams and a cup of coffee. When Maria asked what was going on with all the biscuits, Lola exclaimed in surprise that she was just having a little bit of late morning tea. The rubbish bin revealed two more empty king-size packets, so in reality Lola had eaten more than 50 Tim Tams. As to when she'd started, we weren't sure, but she may have lived on them for three days. Lola was still clueless as to what she'd done that had got people so upset. She couldn't remember whether she had any breakfast and couldn't tell us if she'd eaten anything else lately.

Maria called each of her children and asked them to limit the gifts to one packet at a time. From then on she began attending every meal again with regularity. Never on time, but always there, sauntering in half an hour late and sitting placidly in her chair, waiting for someone to notice her and place a meal on the table.

If the shoe fits...

Dennis had a recent fall, and his wrist got sprained, so he has it in a bandage. Because of this, the carers have been helping him dress each morning. Most residents can do everything for themselves, but if they have been sick, etc, the carers will shower and dress them. Carlotta was in the kitchen one morning and found out that the carer on duty hadn't bothered to help Dennis, so she went up to his room and found him struggling to get himself ready for lunch. She told me this story about dressing Dennis.

As she said to me at the time, raising five children is no different to dressing older people, and these are just grown up small children. (I don't think I've heard it said that way, but I get the idea.) So she helped him dress and came back to serve morning tea.

When she saw me, she said, "Remind me to talk to the carer about Dennis. I think his foot is swollen. It was hard to get his shoe on." Of course, we were busy with scones and coffee, so we both forgot. But later on at lunch, Dennis was suddenly calling Carlotta towards him, and he held his left shoe in one hand. It was then that she remembered the swollen foot, and wondered if he had somehow hurt it more.

"Now, Lottie, I want to talk to you about my shoe!" he exclaimed. Carlotta walked over and listened to see what was wrong with his foot.

"This morning, you helped me with my shoes!" And Dennis paused again. If you want to talk to Dennis, you need a lot of time. Everything he says is measured and carefully planned. And slow.

"And this shoe, you had trouble getting it on!" Carlotta looked at his foot for any signs of swelling, but the socked foot looked just fine. "And I was walking to lunch, and I thought, 'Gee, something is hurting my foot there!' "

At this point the suspense was killing Carlotta. "Dennis, did you hurt your foot? It was very hard to get your shoe on, but we managed to push hard and get it on."

"Well, Lottie, that's what I wanted to talk to you about!" continued Dennis. "Something was hurting my foot when you pushed it on! But you were talking to me, so I was distracted, and I forgot to tell you that it was hurting when you were pushing the shoe on. You're a strong girl, Lottie. And then I was walking to morning tea, and I thought, 'Gee, something is hurting my foot!' And then I came to lunch, and it was still hurting, so I just took it off here, and see what I found!"

Dennis reached into his shoe and pulled out a bunch of housekeys. He had put them in there so that he would stop leaving them at home by mistake. Carlotta just stood there, wondering how someone could walk with keys in their shoe and put up with it for more than two hours.

And probably wondering how someone could get distracted enough by a mundane conversation, to forget to tell someone that it hurts like hell as they're manhandling your foot into a shoe full of keys.

Bette's selections

Bette is an absolute dear. When I first saw her, I kinda inwardly stepped back. She has a funny look about her that makes you think she is perpetually annoyed. But the second she begins to speak, she is just a beautiful person. Very easygoing and a real mouse, she sits with the loudmouth of Barrett. (Another great person, but I'll save Pearl for another day.)

One lunchtime I was wandering around with the order sheet and pencil, ticking off what they each wanted for dinner. I asked Bette if she would like spaghetti bolognese or a toasted sandwich. I expected her to simply choose a toasted sandwich, as she has one almost every night. But she looked at Pearl beside her in confusion, and asked, "What do I usually have?"

Pearl rolled her eyes. "Bette, you always have the sandwich, but if you want the spaghetti, have the spaghetti."

Poor Bette looked absolutely stumped, as if the decision were just too much for her to deal with. She looked as though I'd asked her to construct a dodecahedron using only popsicle sticks and string. I was wondering why she just couldn't work out whether she liked spaghetti. Finally, I suggested she have the spaghetti as a bit of a change. She smiled at me as if I were Santa Claus.

I put the list away, finished handing out the lunchtime dessert, and came around with the tea and coffee pots. When I got to Bette, I asked her if she would prefer tea or coffee.

She paused thoughtfully, then turned to Pearl and asked, "What do I usually have?"

The ladies' man

Most of us probably don't want to think about the sex lives of old people. We would probably feel most comfortable if sex just ended completely, at say, fifty. That way nobody has any horrible visuals to contend with.

We have a maintenance man on the site named Casey. Actually, Casey is his surname; I've no idea what his first name is, but most of the residents call him Young Mr Casey, so I assume that is why. Casey changes light bulbs, paints the common areas, hangs wallpaper and so on. He is usually the person who lays new carpet in an apartment when it is sold, too. Casey is very young, probably only a couple of years out of school, and he has sandy blond hair and a ready smile. He's probably what most teenagers would consider a total hunk, and his vague resemblance to Brad Pitt is a good part of it.

Casey's girlfriend works with the local council and does things like ferry residents to doctor's appointments, and so on. Often it's just a glorified taxi service to take the residents shopping. Some days she arrives to see Casey and hand him a meal from home, etc. They seemed the typical cute young couple to me and very much in love.

The other morning I took breakfast into Nola's room. Nola is a tiny little lady, very sombre, and rarely says anything to anyone, unless it is to answer their questions with as few words as possible. She's probably about eighty years old. We usually knock loudly (thump on the door is more accurate) because the residents are often quite deaf. We then march straight in calling their names or simply yelling out that it's breakfast time. But when I got to Nola's room, the door was slightly ajar, so I didn't need to knock. I pushed it forward, and heard an almighty huffing and puffing noise coming from her bedroom. Ok, I thought, she's having trouble pulling up her stockings? How should I know? But as I pushed her bedroom door ajar there was Casey on top of Nola, both of them naked, Casey so busy thrusting that neither of them had seen me.

What the hell do I do now? I certainly wasn't going to leave her breakfast tray there. I didn't want Casey to know what I had seen. I backed out of her apartment and almost tripped backwards. The milk jug and teapot on her tray spilled everywhere, onto her toast and cereal bowl. I had tea dripping down the front of my apron and any second it was going to soak through the fabric and into my shirt.

Back in the kitchen I was sweating and stressed out to high heaven. I told Alison I'd accidentally spilled Nola's breakfast and that I would remake it for her in a little while because she was still in bed. I started to try and figure out what to tell the manager. I mean, Nola may be a grown adult, but don't I still have some duty to say something when a resident has been abused? And what would happen to Casey? Did I really want him to end up in prison or something? I decided to ask a friend's advice when my shift finished. I made Nola's breakfast tray up, delayed as long as I could, then asked a carer to take it to her room about an hour later.

At lunchtime, I tried not to look at Nola at all. I put the dinner plate in front of her without a word and left the dining room quickly. But as I went to pour the tea, she was chatting amiably with the others at her table, something I had never seen her do before, ever. She looked up at me and positively beamed. "Thank you so much for the late breakfast, Catherine. I'm afraid I slept rather late this morning!" And she was giggling like a schoolgirl.

Thankfully I will not have to share with the manager, but I am left with scars on my retina, images that will just not go away.

Dennis has good eyesight

I think Dennis has only been mentioned once before, in passing. He's a lovely old man, emphasis on the "old" part. Before his retirement he was a chairman of a very prosperous bank. Almost none of the residents have any idea. Dennis lives in Barrett House, in a one bedroom apartment devoid of anything luxurious. I would not call Dennis' flat uncomfortable; it's just evident when you look, that for someone who is very wealthy, the place is simple. He's somewhere in his nineties and walks with a limp and a cane.

Dennis has incredibly bad hearing. I don't think he wears a hearing aid of any description. And he must know his hearing is terrible, just from the many times he has to ask us to repeat something. He's perfectly sane; as with many old people there are occasional forgetful moments of course, but he still bears the mark of a very intelligent soul.

Whenever there's a movie being shown, Dennis and the other deaf residents are always placed close to the surround-sound speakers at the sides of the Royale's lounge room. One week there was a special treat for the residents. Two regular performers were coming back to do a show. It's a husband and wife team that sing and play the electric keyboards, and they have a repertoire of golden oldie songs and musical pieces that all the residents seem to love. Each time they do a "concert" the residents spend three days talking about the fabulous show and all the songs they sung, and "do you remember going to the theatre to see that show back in 1939," etc.

Dennis sat right in front of the massive loud speakers for this latest concert, so that we could be sure he would hear. Iris sat right at the front so she could see, and so on. The male singer, Charlie, walked up to a few residents after the show. "So ladies, gentlemen, how were we today?"

Gushing praise and acclimation followed. "I thought it was terrific!" exclaimed Dennis. Charlie took a moment to look deservedly chuffed as the others poured more praise onto he and Janet, his wife. Dennis' next statement might have been amusing if it had been said in jest. Unfortunately, he was completely serious and didn't grasp the humour in what he said at all.

"Of course," Dennis continued, "I couldn't hear a thing!"

Charlie didn't quite know what to say. It's not every day that a singer is told he's only terrific when he can't be heard.

Ted and the night visits

Most people here are really, really nice. Unfortunately we have a few residents that are, well, bitches. They come in either gender, it's just a very apt description of their attidude. The Royale has more than its fair share of bitches. One of them is Mara, who will serve you an earful if her breakfast is not precisely on time. (I must remember to tell you more about her later.)

Another is Ted. Ted has caught the "I am Entitled" disease. He is Entitled to call the carers "honkies" (as in Hong Kong people, and he might as well call them chinks or chongs with that kind of racism), He is Entitled to have his food brought to him on a tray an hour after meal time, just because he cannot be bothered attending the dining room; he is Entitled to extra dessert "because the residents paid for it all, don't you know, girly" etc, etc etc. And Ted even uses the word a lot.

Ted is extremely proper and dignified (while busy calling Arabella a honkie), carries a handkerchief and walking stick all the time, puts his best suit on every Sunday and walks over to the church across the road, because he is a good Anglican (who calls Arabella a honkie, but not on Sundays). He writes letters with a fancy pen and listens to classical music on his "wireless" and it is certainly not a stereo, it's a wireless, thank you very much, and his father worked for His Master's Voice back in 1781 or something and he should most Certainly know.

It is Ted's Entitlement to 24 hour nursing care that I write about today. We have two carers on site during the days between 5am and 7pm. They do things like take lunch trays to people who unwell (as opposed to Ted who cannot be bothered). They also shower the amputee lady Doris, and maybe change a bandage for anyone who's recuperating from hospital. Then there are general things, like the fact that Lola will still be sitting in pyjamas at 1pm if nobody goes in at 11 and tells her it's time to dress for lunch. They also distribute all the prescriptions that residents' doctors have prescribed. Virtually every single dinner place has a small paper cup of tablets sitting there, belonging to the occupant, waiting to be swallowed with lunch.

The overnight carer, however, is asleep, not sitting and waiting for someone to buzz or call. As they get a bonus for each callout, it costs the village quite a lot - and annoys the tired carers, who are difficult to convince into doing that shift in the first place. The manager sent a letter to all residents, asking them not to "bother" the SLEEPING carers if it can wait till morning. (That kind of embarrassment works wonders.) From that point on, callouts rarely happened at all. Unfortunately the exception was Ted, who called them 5 or so times per night, almost every night.

Ted's nighttime urinary continence has been going downhill a bit. When he first experienced problems he was given a bunch of options. One was to do Kegel exercises to strengthen things - apparently he thought that was hogwash and refused. He was also advised to cut down coffee, not to drink alcohol after mid-afternoon, told to drink MORE water to practice and strengthen things - what a waste of time. He would refuse to drink anything but coffee at meals, and I saw him with a glass of red almost every evening in the study of his apartment. The doctor also tried, and failed, to have him limit his sugar intake. I mentioned the extra dessert here earlier, so that advice went down like a lead balloon. When he wasn't drinking coffee he was drinking Fanta, and I can't think of a soft drink with more sugar than that sticky, bladder-killing stuff.

And so, the result was he got worse, often wetting himself only an hour after going to bed. Each time he would call the carer to come and clean him up. He refused rubber sheets and he refused to wear an incontinence pad. Sometimes he would wake in time to get to the toilet, and then call the carer simply because he couldn't get back to sleep.

The carers' supervisor sought him one day and said that he ought to consider the incontinence pads and rubber sheets since he was really being a little unfair with the attention he was demanding, not to mention the fact that the carers had to be paid extra for each visit. And Ted replied, "Well, the 24hour care is a substantial part of the reason I purchased such an expensive piece of real estate. We do pay for it, you know, so we do have an entitlement to such care." And that is exactly how he speaks, too. Incredibly refined.

But Celia was having none of this. Celia is one of the loveliest bosses I've ever had, but she is so incredibly businesslike. Everyone trusts her. There is just something about her confidence that people know she can deal with just about anything.

Celia called Ted into the office. "Ted, sit down. We've got a bit of a problem and perhaps you and I can sort it out. The supervisor tells me that the poor carers are being called out half a dozen times a night to assist you. Is this right?"

Ted, amazingly, wasn't ashamed to admit it was true. "Unfortunately, Celia, I've taken to having accidents throughout the night, and I do need assistance to tidy up when it happens, so yes, I've been buzzing the girls when it happens." Celia then asked why he refused the options offered to him, and he replied that he felt it below his dignity, and that he was entitled to refuse such ghastly things.

"Well Ted," Celia said, readying the punch, "we are a self-care facility here, and it's been suggested that someone unable to care for themselves overnight might require a more... substantial level of care, perhaps a nursing home."

Bang. I cannot believe she could say that. She can't actually ask anyone to leave and it's almost beyond belief that she played that card. But my aunt swears it's true. And Ted just sat there flabbergasted, realising his assertiveness had boxed him straight into a corner from which there was only one way out.

"I've had a chat to the nurse," Celia was saying, and she went on to describe Ted's Last Hope, spelling out the details and ending with, "...maybe it'd give you a good nights' sleep and we'd all be a bit happier, what do you think? Will you give it a go?" And he agreed, since there was little other option.

So I was working in the kitchen that day, when the phone rang and the supervisor was on the line wanting to talk with Preethi, one of the carers. And since the phone is in the kitchen there are no private conversations. Preethi did a lot of listening, a lot of exclamations of surprise, a bit of a laugh, and I was dying to know what was so funny. Preethi is loud, outgoing and just great fun all round. "The supervisor will be at work tomorrow," she said, "and wanted to ask me how to fit a Uridom. She needs to teach Caroline how to do it."

The first thing I asked is what a Uridom is, since I'm just a lowly kitchenhand and don't know what any of the medical contraptions are. It's what it sounds like. It's a condom-shaped thing with a tube attached to the bottom, which leads to a bag, and it's to catch urine for people with continence problems. Now you see, that isn't especially funny, even when you consider that silly old Ted deserved to have to wear one. Ok, that was funny, but only about him having to need help to fit it.

But the plot thickens. Consider that Caroline is one of the mice here. Tiny little thing that giggles and blushes a huge amount and who was too embarrassed to shower the men in her first week at the place. She, one of the honkies he hates, is now going to have to be face-to-face with Ted's penis, to fit this thing. Damn, wouldn't you like to have a microphone in there, just to find out whether he can insult her while she is busy staring at his penis?

BUT WAIT - THERE'S MORE. No, not a free set of steak knives. Better than that. He has to be erect while it is put on. I told you it got better. Preethi commented that she just "marches straight in, tells him he's got five minutes to get himself hard, and then it will be time for the Uridom" then leaves, and that he does as she asks. I want to know what Caroline says to him. "Um, mister, um, please can you please get... up please?" And I can just imagine Ted staring at her in disbelief. I don't really want to think about Ted masturbating to erection, but it would be just too funny not to know whether she left the room or helped him. Actually, no, I don't think I want to know either way. Some things are just never meant to be known.

Bert has gatecrashers

Like any part of society, this place is made up of all kinds of personalities. There is Elsie, who thinks the world of everyone and treats everyone as if they were her own treasured children. Lola is always off in lollipop land, but manages to look serious every hour of the day, and fools a lot of people into thinking she's all there in the head (and she's definitely not). Ransa is always on the go, studying Economics three days a week "because it is interesting" and digging the gardens with an axe far too heavy for me to lift. She is one of the people still healthy in mind, as most here are. Another one is Bert (or I thought he was, until I heard this story).

I truly like Bert and he is quite young, perhaps late 50s. But he's a bit weird. He lives in the Courtyard, and is always exceedingly polite. He will arrive for dinner, stand beside his seat, cock his head sideways to look at you in a funny manner, pause for a painfully long moment, then thank you for bringing his food, pause again, then sit down. The other residents tolerate him but it's obvious they find him as "unusual" as the staff do.

We have always considered him one of the healthiest ones here. He's one of the ones who always brings his own trays back from breakfast. He goes out and does his own shopping, he goes to bowls, he has a beer at the club with the other people his age. He is just particularly private and independent while here at home. (Consider that most of the other residents accept and even expect the carers and other staff to stroll into their flats without invitation as if it's a serviced hotel, and it might be more apparent why a very private person sticks out around here.)

I've no idea what is physically wrong with him. Perhaps it is Parkinson's. I don't see him shake or have trouble with his motor functions, but he has a mannerism about him that suggests he is always, always cautious and worried about falling. A few of them are like that. It only takes one broken wrist to remember to slow down and be careful where you step.

In any case, he is on new medication for whatever it is that ails him. And it causes hallucinations. He came into my aunt's office one day to speak with the manager. Celia was on annual leave, so my aunt offered to try to help. "It's the family that have moved into my flat," he said. "I'm really not happy about it."

My aunt just stared at him. Bert lives alone, like almost all the residents here. But Bert wasn't finished. "They've rearranged my things. I found my own clothes on the floor because they used my drawers. And I am missing my peanut butter. Is it here? Maybe I left it on my breakfast tray. I need it back, it was a brand new jar."

After a moment of tense silence, Bert was the one to speak again. "You don't believe me, do you?"

How can anyone answer that question, when it is asked by someone who you used to think had nothing wrong with their brain?

My aunt looked at him carefully. "If I lived here," she asked, "and I came to you and told you a strange family had moved their things into my flat, would you believe me?" She said that Bert just stood there for a few minutes, without answering the question, and then apparently made up his mind.

"I'm going to go and ask the kitchen if they've seen my peanut butter," he told her determinedly. "And then I'm going to tell that family to move out."

Exotic food

I've mentioned John before. He's the 85-odd man who has a problem with Christians and Bingo and who thinks I must be old.

Most of the residents, just like you and I, have a list of foods they won't touch. Me, I'm pretty ordinary. I'll eat pretty much anything except oysters, calamari and brains. (I'm sure there are weirder things you could stick in front of me that I would reject, but you get the idea.)

Most residents only have things like Brussels Sprouts on that "will not eat" list, but John appears to have a strange fear of the exotic. I'm not talking escargot here, I'm talking anything he can't immediately identify. This makes things quite interesting when it comes to all our creative casseroles as in the Spanish Chicken episode.

All the staff know that you never, ever put tartare sauce on his dish if we're having fish. It's like unleashing a floodgate of anger. Apparently John never had it as a youngun, because if he's not familiar with the food "you can take it away and swim in it". Similarly rejected items are anything containing curry that isn't a typical pussy-English excuse for curry, and any dessert not served the way it has been for 50 years. For instance, sago pudding MUST have cream (never custard or fruit). Custard is ok with fruit, however. But you may not have ice cream with fruit. There are rules. I think the rules only exist in John's head, but far be it from me to dare break them.

We are expected to take the following days' orders at lunchtime. Occasionally a resident has gone out for the day and their order is missed. We're supposed to chase them up later on to get their order, but that's a pain in the ass. So sometimes, if we know them reasonably well, we'll know which foods they like and we can just do the order for them. Most of them are ok with that.

I was working with Alison one morning when I realised John didn't have an order for lunch, and I wondered aloud what he would like, asking what was for lunch. The options that day were Veal Cordon Bleu or Navarin of Lamb (aka Lamb Casserole). She said, "Don't bother asking. He'll have the Lamb Casserole." He usually turns casserole down, but I wrote what she said. After all, I didn't want to go and ask.

When he showed up for lunch, I felt bad, so I offered him the choice. He looked at me in disgust. "What the hell's that?" he asked, referring to the Veal Cordon Bleu. Before I had a chance to explain, he said, "Don't put that rubbish near me. I want the casserole."

I met Alison in the kitchen and she began to laugh. She said, "He won't eat anything that doesn't sound like food." That was something I had to stand there and try to understand for a minute or so. What does food sound like? Thank goodness I hadn't offered Navarin of Lamb. (I still don't know what a Navarin was, and maybe I'll never know.)

This guy is so big on ordinary foods like Frankfurts with Mashed Potatoes that I knew there had to be a way to fool him. Call me sick, call me twisted, but the next time that Veal Cordon Bleu was on the menu, I offered him Navarin of Lamb or the Ham and Cheese Veal.

He chose the veal. He said it sounded nice. And he ate it, too.

Spanish Chicken

Scene: Lounge room, 10am. Mrs Sanders is in there, staring at the silent TV, while the radio blares an unrelated noise beside it. I've found her in here in the past with only one or the other turned on. She becomes quite agitated, asking me to turn them both on, because "they work together". But today, they're both on, so she'll be fine.

I've become used to starting all interactions with her in a similar way. It tends to go over easier if you throw on an enormous smile and look thrilled to see her. So this is how I usually begin these days.

"Hello Sunshine! I've brought you some tea! And a biscuit!"
"Ohhh! Thank you pet!" (beams with happiness)

Skip forward a couple of hours, to lunch time. We always serve their lunch as they arrive, and then take orders for the following day. Every day there is a roast of some description, plus a casserole-type item as an alternative. No matter what they call it, it's casserole. But the word "casserole" seems to imply it's boring, so the caterers get creative. We have Navarin of Lamb (lamb and herb casserole), Meditteranean Chicken (chicken casserole), Beef Chasseure (beef casserole). You get the idea. It's more exotic and interesting if you change the word away from casserole, etc. For the less "refined" residents, foreign words in their food are completely useless, because they have no idea what we're offering. We usually translate it back from Mexican Pork Hot Pot to just plain old Casserole, for them. Marjorie is one of the ones I always translate it for.

So today I start like always, with a huge smile. "Hello Mrs Sanders!"
"Hello Pet!" (beams with happiness)
"Here's your lunch, Mrs Sanders."
"YOU CAN PUT IT THERE! (screaming, pointing to the floor) HE'S HOT! (motions to an apparently nasty person in the empty chair beside her)"
"Alright then, I'll put the plate here at this chair." (she grabs the plate and scowls.)

It's obviously almost Time for her visit to hospital. When she's like that we generally just try to appease her and keep her happy. Forward five minutes. I took her order last, considering she was in such a volatile mood.

"Mrs Sanders, would you like Pork Casserole or Spanish Roast Chicken for lunch tomorrow?"

"...SPANISH???!!!!!!!!!!!"

She was just furiously angry now. I stepped backwards. She's never ever indicated she might hit me or anyone else. It's just a conditioned reaction to expect violence from someone so angry, I guess.

Marjorie was spluttering and almost had steam coming out her ears. "The Spanish are in my wardrobe!!!!!!!!!!!" she yelled.

I was fairly confident that indicated her decision as being the Pork Casserole. Before I got a chance to simply tick that and move away, her face relaxed its fury and she took on a determined look.

...I'll have Spain."

Movie day

Every Sunday afternoon the residents have a Movie Day. This is a major social event. It is also one of the few times that anyone ever uses the Royale's lounge room, as it's the biggest of the four lounges. The residents congregate there and they show a DVD on the big screen tv. The movies are usually golden oldies, but occasionally they show popular mild modern movies, say, The Bridges of Madison County or whatever. Then they have tea and coffee and something exciting, like chocolate biscuits or scones, etc. It's an action-packed afternoon.

This anecdote I wasn't actually present for. It was related to me by Carlotta, who is a Tongan lady who works with me in the kitchen. Carlotta is reliability personified. She's worked there for fifteen years and all the residents love her. She knows what she's doing and nothing bothers her. She is also built like a professional weightlifter.

Apparently this Sunday, Marjorie took it upon herself to attend the movie. I'm not sure that she usually does, considering she'd have been just as happy alone in the other lounge, but I'm guessing one of the carers encouraged her to go. Marjorie has a walking frame (Zimmer) that I refer to as her car. She has told me emphatically several times that she can't walk without it. Indeed, she is a large heavy-set lady who is usually quite unsteady on her feet. A couple of times she's forgotten to bring it to dinner and I've had to rescue her as she's hung onto the doorway of the dining room. She's heavy, all right. It feels rather bizarre holding the arm of someone that you know you can never possibly stop from falling if they actually stumble.

The Royale building has a huge wrap-around verandah at the front, and about 15 stairs leading to its grand threshhold. Yes, you guessed it, Marjorie tried to take her walker up those stairs. The upshot of it is she got all the way to the top with the walker, but then tripped up the last couple of stairs, and fell forwards scraping her shins badly and ending in a heap on the verandah. Arabella and Caroline, two of the personal carers, found her there as they were bringing some of the other residents to the movie.

Arabella and Caroline are both of Chinese background and are studying here on student visas. That's common to almost every single carer: they are all from overseas, all under 21, and all students. Putting it into more accurate terms, Australians are lazy snobs and do not want to work in a service job. Cry foul all you like, it's the truth. There are 3 kitchen staff who are Australian (I'm the first) and the other two are semi-retired women in their 50s. Every time Celia has advertised for staff she has Chinese, Korean, and Indian people apply, and nobody else. Anyway, Arabella and Caroline are both tiny diminutive scraps of humanity. Truly lovely girls with hearts of gold, but a fresh breeze would blow them over. So they heaved and tugged and pulled, but there was no way on earth the two of them could get poor Marjorie to her feet, even when Marjorie was trying to help.

(I wish I'd been there just to see those two girls attempt to get her off the floor. It would have been hilarious.)

So as Marjorie sat there marooned on the verandah, one of them ran to get Carlotta to help. Even with Carlotta and her strong arms it was proving a difficult task. Carlotta said, "Why don't we swing her legs around and onto the second step, so that we can help her up that way?"

So they did that, but as they tried to help Marjorie up she started yelling. "I'm not going down there!" she screamed. "I want to go and see the movie! You can't make me go back down there! My walker is up here! I'm going this way!" and the woman who could not get herself off the floor used surprising strength to stop them spinning her around towards the stairs.

Ever tried reasoning with a 2 year old having a tantrum? I don't think this would have been far off. Marjorie told me it took them another fifteen minutes to calm her down and get her to cooperate. The movie was delayed. I've no idea whether Marjorie even knew what it was about, let alone enjoyed her day.

Marjorie's now showing everyone her battle scars. "I had a heavy fall yesterday!" she exclaims to anyone who'll listen, lifting her pants leg to reveal an assortment of bandages and sticking plasters. I made the mistake of replying, "Oh, you poor thing," when she told me... I was greeted with a furious, "I'M NOT POOR! I'M MRS SANDERS!!"

...Uh... yes. Of course.

John's afternoon coffee

I've mentioned John before, in the bingo incident. John, I am informed by my aunt, was one of the Rats of Tobruk. I'm a little fuzzy on my history, but apparently these people were incredibly brave war veterans who suffered and saw horrors that would test the staunchest soldier. Not many of them are still alive today, but many of them had post-traumatic stress disorder and it is completely understandable that they might have some, er, eccentricities. John is of advanced age, but considering how often he can behave "normally", I can only conclude that it's the things he has seen that make him a little unusual.

This morning when I took his breakfast, he pointed at a dark brown splash-mark on his living-room carpet, remarked that he'd been woken at 2am to find this, and wanted to know what it was and would I smell it? I dutifully did and told him it was vomit. He promptly blamed it on a friend that was over for coffee the day before, who must have vomited on the floor and not said anything. People do that, you know. They vomit on a friends' living room floor at 4pm, don't say a word, and somehow that vomit will make enough noise to wake you at 2am.

The firemen visit

I have learned...

...that a REALLY REALLY LOUD fire alarm is of little use when so many residents are deaf.

It went off this morning at about 8am. We all ran out to find out whether it actually was our property and yep, it was us. No info in the personal care room... no idea what to do really, so I called my aunt at home, who called the manager for me while I rang the fire brigade. I called them mainly to ask about evacuation (it's something of a pain in the backside when you have so many elderly residents, some of whom are unable to walk very far unassisted). The firey remarked with surprise that the back-to-base alarm had not activated at his end. (Disturbing, but it's because there wasn't one.) No smoke anywhere so we were pretty clueless as to what was happening.

And so began the fun of getting them all out of their rooms. I ran to about the first five, knocked, barged in, and told each of them just to come out their front doors so that we knew they weren't inside. Almost none of them had heard the alarm. Those that had heard something hadn't thought to find out what it was, or hadn't clicked that a fire alarm means "get out". Sigh.

I then found that some of the other staff weren't helping me. What the HELL? One was sitting and eating cereal. Another one was setting the dining tables. Good luck to the residents if the building goes up in smoke one day... don't worry, the tables will be set and the staff's stomachs will be full while people die. I managed to get them to help, and I am still surprised that I had to *ask*.

Dennis has a broken arm; Marjorie had a fall yesterday and is wobbly; Mrs Xu had not heard the alarm and had no idea what I wanted (with almost no English) so I managed to explain that she had to sit outside, and when she came out she heard the alarm and finally understood what I wanted. I walked in on one lady on the toilet (door open wide, the poor thing was in a terrible hurry). Two of them were showering. The second one, Pete, was stark naked when I walked into his bedroom. He had the good humour to laugh at my embarrassment.

By this stage the fireys had arrived and residents had congregated on the balconies to watch the "show" as eight of them walked in with gas tanks and wearing full paraphernalia. The fire engine followed them (we're on a long driveway off a back laneway). The fireys all marched around all purpose-like while 30 sets of elderly eyes followed them with keen interest. It was all very entertaining for an otherwise boring Sunday morning. The "terrible fire" was determined to be the shower of the gentleman I'd walked in on, but nobody knew how to turn off the alarm. It's a good thing the manager called me on my mobile just then, to tell the fireys how to disable it ;)

So, no fire. What a let-down! Still, it's better than actually trying to get all those people down to the ground floor if there actually had been a fire that was moving with any speed. Celia (the manager) told me that the alarm went off a week ago too, and that there was a new system going in over the next month. Thank goodness for that.

Once we realised all was good, I started letting the residents know they could go back to their rooms. But they stayed right where they were, despite the rather frosty air (probably about 10 degrees C, which to an elderly person is Arctic). Nora, who is a miniature chainsmoker whose room constantly oozes cigarette smoke, remarked, "They're strapping young men, aren't they?" and leered at them over her balcony. I attempted to make small talk about needing to be fit to climb ladders, but it became apparent their ladder-climbing skill wasn't what she was interested in. When I got back to the kitchen to try something mundane, another staff member was giggling madly. "Ester is perving on the firemen," she said. As I write this, I'm finding this difficult to believe. Ester is the sweetest, perfect 'little old lady' type person, and here she is, starring in two perve anecdotes in a row. I would sooner imagine her baking scones and bottling home-made jam.

"They're all still standing out there and talking about how handsome they are and the great bodies they have. And how they thought that firemen were supposed to be in red suits, not yellow. But how they're very handsome young men anyway who are welcome to visit any Sunday they please. And then they started discussing whether anyone knew how to set the fire alarm off next week."

Marjorie, Part 2

Most of the residents here have apartments that look like a home. Large or small, they're filled with personal items and homely furniture. Marjorie's doesn't. It is one of the few that seems truly like a hostel room. She has a reasonably nice wrap-around bookshelf in one corner; however only two of the six shelves are used. The others just stare back empty. She has a handful of pictureframes of the two children who never visit. She has never mentioned them - another staff member claims they're simply not close to their mother. There's no phone. Everything else in the room is arranged perfectly. The shoes are all on a rack, even though she only wears one pair. There's a huge decorative foil-covered chocolate she was given at Christmas, in the shape of Santa. It's untouched: it has simply become another belonging that sits perpetually on her counter. It's where it "belongs", and I'm sure if she were invited to eat it, she'd tell you it belongs there.

It may sound a little depressing to hear of the barren and impersonal state of her tiny single room in Miller House. If Marjorie actually truly understood her life I'd be sad for her. But she smiles almost every day, off in her own world. I can't feel sorry for someone who's not lacking anything in their own happiness. She's also completely unusual here. She strictly-speaking can't really care for herself and belongs in a higher-care institution. But I think the management couldn't face putting her into a nursing home full of indifferent and impersonal companions. She's happy here, so while we can cope, she can stay.

As I've noted, Marjorie has electric shock therapy every three weeks. Today one of the carers was getting ready to take her to the hospital for her therapy, and after lunch Marjorie appeared back at the door, and said she was ready to go. The carer asked her to use the toilet first. Marjorie then asked to use the staff one. The carer said no, she had to use her own. Marjorie wouldn't go into her room. This went back and forth with Marjorie looking more and more distressed. She kept saying she couldn't go in there. Finally... "The Americans are working in my bathroom!!!"

I've still no idea how the carer solved that one.

Some days I'm glad I'm just a kitchenhand.

The thrill of cricket

Another pearler from the land of the retired people otherwise known as My Work.

Today half the staff went for first aid certification. We commandeered one of the residents' communal lounge rooms. (Marjorie would have been annoyed. Her normal daytime ritual from 8 until 5 is to sit in there and stare.)

It was pretty heavy going actually. I was only refreshing mine because it's expired, but most of the others had never had any exposure to first aid at all - typical were enquiries about putting butter onto burns and spoons into the mouths of epileptics (don't ever use either!). To his credit the teacher made much fun of the fact that "Grandma's advice was always terrible" and managed to get a laugh from most of the ill-informed. Add to the discovery all the acronyms to remember (EAR, RICE, CPR, and all the others) and I think we were all pretty grateful for the lunch break.

Forget the residents - we normally have this unspoken rule that if they're eating in there, we don't. Screw that. I sat down with a plate of veal cordon bleu and stir-fried vegies and began stuffing my face.

The discussion at the table next to me was somewhat interesting. Someone commented on Dizzy's double century. Yes, for the non-cricket people, that's 200 runs, and Jason "Dizzy" Gillespie recently managed 201 not out, which is an amazing achievement. Now unlike the glory days of the 80s and 90s, not everyone in this country can name the Australian cricket team members. So a fair few of her dining companions were intrigued by whom this big-scorer was.

Doris translated "Dizzy" into Jason Gillespie, which unfortunately left most of them still in the dark about the mystery man. Doris is, of course, a veritable expert on everything. I say that in all honesty - the lady has the most phenomenal memory.

"Isn't he a young man?" one of them asked (I think it was Ester, who's an absolute darling, but looks as if she's about 150 years old). Doris to the rescue. "He's thirty-one" she supplied emphatically. Doris probably knew his star sign, favourite colour and where he went to school, as well. At about this time, Dawn had migrated from her table to theirs, to join in the discussion. "I like him. He's a nice looking young man." Mumbled agreement from Ester, who had apparently seen him before and thought he was indeed a nice looking man. "Of course, he used to have long hair," says Dawn, and I could almost hear their jaws hit the floor. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, elderly people still regard long-haired men as Beatnik leftovers who are not to be respected in the least.

"He's much better looking now that he's cut off his hair," insisted Dawn. Dawn is a little old lady who's on the round side and who dresses in cardigans a lot and whose chin is rarely high enough off her chest for you to look her in the face. I had a sudden visual of her camped in front of her tv and drooling over the sexy, sexy, sexy young man in the cricket whites and the baggy green cap. It was becoming difficult to concentrate on my food without exploding in laughter. It was time to make an exit.

I stood up and began to collect my cutlery to move into the kitchen, and meanwhile they were all still discussing that he was quite a good looking man. Then Ester dropped the bomb.

"Is he married?"

I stifled the giggles as best I could. Praise be to the being which gave old people poor hearing.

Meet Marjorie

There's a new man in the village named Pete. He's a lovely man. On the first day I met him, he had placed a folded piece of paper on his breakfast tray, covered in elderly fancy handwriting. It read, "Thank you to all the staff for your warm welcome and your hard work. I am sure we will have happy years here. From Peter Alfred Morgan." Anyway, he and another new resident needed somewhere to sit, so we placed them at the large table and moved Marjorie onto the smaller one. Marjorie has always sat alone. She has bad days that scare other people.

Every three weeks she goes to hospital to have electric shock therapy. I was aghast when I found out. Surely they don't use this barbaric practice in this day and age? But she needs it. Marjorie runs on a perfect three-week schedule. For the few days before she's due, there are Bad Days. After the treatment, she is this smiling and lovely creature (albeit, the elevator never has reached the top floor).

Marjorie is like sunshine most of the time. She greets me with her face lit up, saying, "Hello, pet!" Mind you, until someone engages her in conversation, she sits alone in the lounge room and stares. The television is usually off. Sometimes when I take her a cup of tea, she asks me to put on the music. Some days she tells me with glee that the Americans are here. Can I hear them? she asks. She looks at the ceiling, hearing a non-existant fleet of fighter jets overhead. She is fond of dunking a biscuit into tea with lots of milk. That's the way I do it, too. You'd be surprised at the amount of times you can discuss butternut cookies and white tea. I could bring up the same exact sentence every night, and she'd happily discuss it again.

Most mealtimes she comes in right on time, sits down, places her napkin upright between the salt and pepper shakers, Eats dinner, Drinks Tea, and Leaves, all executed in fifteen minutes at the most. We make sure her tablets are there before the tea, or else someone has to chase her. She smiles and tells us some imagined incident from today. Some days, her table neighbours (that only she can see) are Hot. That means they're nasty, or bad news, or something - I'm not quite sure how, but it is evident by the look on her face it's a most unsavoury adjective. When she starts this I usually place a glass of water in front of her invisible "neighbour"; Marjorie snatches the drink away from "them" with irritation and drinks it, just so that they can't have it. Some days she'll eat the dessert. Some days it obviously interferes with her Fixed Agenda (see Sit, Eat, Tea, Leave above). One day she loudly and rudely told me I could give the dessert to the dog. Whose dog, I have no idea. She's never mentioned one before.

On Tuesday it was evident it was almost Time. She entered the dining room all flustered, sat down at the table, then removed all the cutlery and arranged it on the other placemat, stood up, and moved to the other chair. I've no idea why she moved, but you don't argue with Marjorie; we're happy if she does her usual Sit, Eat, Tea, Leave. When I went in with her meal there was no sunshine. "My name is MRS SANDERS!" she shouted at me. I supposed I wouldn't be allowed to call her Marjorie that day like I usually do. I just cheerfully put the plate down and said, "Well, Mrs Sanders, here's your lunch!" and the cloud disappeared and the sun came out on her face. She told me with an exasperated smile, "They're keeping me up all night working on the pipes." (They? Pipes? H-okay.) She rolled her eyes and began to eat her food.

Afterwards, the timid and kindhearted Arabella offered her a bowl of caramel pudding cake with custard, and she just yelled at Arabella, "Why don't YOU eat it!!!" This was a new one. Arabella didn't know whether to wet her pants in shock or burst out laughing.

...I know there will be more about Marjorie. She has new stories to tell me daily. The weird ones, I remember.

Arabella did eat the pudding.

Fairwell, fair Penelope

I was just re-reading my earlier entries, and I saw the story about Penelope and Bingo, and realised I'd never updated about her. You will recall that I mentioned her age of 101 years old, with all her mental faculties intact.

Every morning after the tea and coffee are served (10am), Alison takes a cup of tea up to Penelope's room. Penelope made her own way down the stairs for lunch every day, and could still carry a conversation perfectly. For some reason Alison was about half an hour late in taking the tea one day. She found Penelope on the floor, having fallen and (unbeknownst at the time) broken her hip. The poor lady must have been in excruciating pain, but was apparently lucid and able to tell Alison that she'd barely been there five minutes. Alison buzzed for the personal carer and stayed with Penelope, knowing that she couldn't leave her and couldn't move her in case there was a broken bone. Minutes passed. The carers only receive a room number on the pager, and have no idea if there's an emergency or if someone has lost their reading glasses. Alison eventually had to yell out to the lady next door to run for my aunt down in the office, who called the ambulance.

I believe things happen for a reason. There's a reason that Alison was late that day. Had she not been, Penelope may have lain there for hours undiscovered.

So the hospital confirmed she'd broken her hip, and there was reason to believe her recovery would be long, but the more devastating news was that Penelope was now frail enough to be considered unsuitable for a self-care retirement village. When Penelope was told she'd have to go into a nursing home, she said, "Well this is it then. My time is over."

She died in her sleep three nights later. It's as if she gave in and chose when it was time to go. I was sad when I heard she wasn't returning, but really, really glad that she chose her way out of this world. I suspect most of us won't have the option or the courage to do the same when it's our time.

Bingo is for old people

The latest adventures of Shady Oaks Lifestyle Village haven't quite been as enjoyable as the Woofer incident. Lately I've had to manage the other two dining rooms - including the Royale, whose residents are, predictably, the more exclusive set. They do, honestly, seem to believe they're in an exclusive restaurant, and many of them have the appropriate disdain for small mistakes in their meal (no, *SHE* asked for fewer carrots, *I* asked for less beans!) or two-minute delays in receiving their coffee. Raucous conversation is certainly never allowed, much less loud laughter.

Yesterday began like all the others. I was running a few minutes late though, and as most of the Royale residents were beginning dessert, one lady rose and began removing a tablecloth, carefully placing the salt shakers on the sideboard and folding the tablecloth neatly. At first I thought she was trying to be "helpful" until another resident began placing huge numbered bingo cards around the table.

One of those still-eating was John. A bit of background info on John. John is essentially a pleasant man. He remarks on the nice weather each morning that I deliver his breakfast tray. I'm told that he can be somewhat abrupt and rude at times. The staff and other residents tend to just change the subject and ignore the outbursts. Many of them here are old and losing a few marbles. Some are just a bit wacky while still young. He's the former. I estimate him to be about 85.

As it was being set up, the conversation at the other tables shifted to how wonderful bingo is, and how one of them had played it at the church hall. Apparently several of them could identify, because it necessitated a discourse on the fact that there was a lot of bingo going on at a lot of halls, that it was often organised by the churches, and that it was wonderful.

From out of nowhere, John stood up and yelled at the top of his voice, "I HATE CHRISTIANS! I CAN'T STAND BLOODY CHRISTIANS! I HATE THEM!"

The place fell so silent you could have heard a pin drop. (Later, I realised they were silent not because of the delicate subject matter, but because someone had dared raise their voice.)

A few moments later the bingo-preparations resumed and the chatter cautiously began again, when John made another huge announcement. "I HATE BINGO! BINGO IS FOR OLD PEOPLE!"

Silently, from 6 feet away from him, Penelope had been intently concentrating on her dessert bowl. She slowly raised her head and turned to face him, staring, yet said nothing.

At this point I was faced with a major dilemma. A resident was holding out a stack of plates for me to take and I was facing the wrong direction to escape and hide my mirth. I did my best not to laugh, but as I looked over at Penelope, I lost it. I can only imagine she was thinking what I was thinking, namely, just how young did John think he was?

Penelope has all her marbles and all her hearing, and is 101.

(It would have been a good ending right there, but the rest is mildly amusing when I think back.)

John didn't seem to like the fact that I was laughing in the still of the room, and he just stared at me. So I loudly announced, "I play Bingo!!!!!!!!!" (It's the truth. It's also a weekly catch-up with my mother, since our local club has child-minding.)

Every head in the room swivelled to look at me. Did they secretly agree with John? And was this shock I was seeing? He asked me, "Well, are you old?"

I should mention here that I remember flared trousers and the Bee Gees, yet I'm so young-looking that I still get asked for identification when buying beer. I didn't get a chance to figure out whether he was serious (and off his tree that day) or just making a joke, but I simply answered that on bingo days I must be, and the rest of the room managed to laugh.

The children visit

I took my kids to work with me on Friday (having no real choice if they wanted me to work) and my aunt took them to see Iris, who lives in The Courtyard (one of the middle-class areas of the village). You may remember Iris from her starring role in the Woofer anecdote. Iris' husband was a Spitfire pilot in WW2, and somehow in conversation last month she and my aunt had an hour-long chat about different relatives and their work in the armed forces. My aunt's brother was a decorated hero for destroying his small plane to take out a German tank on his own, or something like that. Iris told her the squadron he was in and when and where he served. Apparently they've exchanged war stories another dozen times, and every time Iris sees her in the office, they have another chat. I actually think my aunt tracks her down to have another chat every few days - she's quite interested in the war. Anyway, on Friday, my son Matty decided to make her a paper plane, and my daughter Kylie decided that all old people love hand-made greeting cards covered in every colour flouro highlighter that can be found in an office. (Well, they do love cards like that, don't they? I've no idea.)

Iris was most excited to see me that night at dinner time. "I spent the day with your children!" she exclaimed proudly, primarily, I suspected, for the benefit of the other dinner-table guests. They were suitably jealous of the so-called half-hour otherwise known as a 'day'. Stupidly jealous, I thought, since my two are hardly in hot demand... but hey, I wasn't going to tell them that. "They're lovely children!" she gloated. Doris asked their names, and Iris was most proud to tell her they were Kylie and Matthew, at which point the whole table agreed it was lovely, and that they were a Pigeon Pair.

"Your aunt showed me a spitfire on her television." It took me a moment to realise she meant the computer, but then she corrected herself. "Oh! Not the television, on the Internet!!!!" (Capital I for Emphasis.) Awed silence at such a miraculous invention.

At this point in my long and drawn-out story, I'm reminded of how great old people are. None of us young folk have any kind of awe for new stuff, we're all burned out on technology, but old people think new things are just sensational. It's beautiful. Hold that thought for a moment, because Iris had more to say.

"Of course," she said importantly to her captive audience, "I've no idea how she knew my husband was a pilot."

I have a new job.

I have a new job. It's working in the community kitchen of the retirement village where my aunt does the wages. Sorry, Lifestyle Village. I can't call it a retirement village. Those are for old people. It's a Lifestyle Village, which automatically makes 90-year-olds "not old". It's all about image. Or something.

I have nothing to do with my aunt, which is good, since my mother and I nearly came to blows working together at her work... but I digress. I'm a combination kitchenhand/waitress. Go me. Actually, I like it. The weekend pay is better than I was getting in tech support for sitting at a desk and I bring home more leftover food than I could possibly eat. Free food rocks.

I get to serve them all in the dining rooms. They're actually not a bad bunch at all. Most of them have all their marbles, albeit left over from 1972... the dinner table conversation can be quite amusing. On the weekend they had been discussing some actor from nineteen yickety two (I missed who) and that some movie of his had been on, and others were disappointed to have missed it on the tv. Enter our hero, Iris, who announced, "You're all welcome to come and watch it in my flat, I have it on Dee Vee Dee." Muttered discussion and awe as they all digested this new fangled news. I doubt many of them even have a VCR.

The amputee lady, Doris, has more spunk than the rest of them combined. "Well if you're finished boasting," she said, "I'll have a boast too. I have a new stereo, and it's got a Woofer."

This was met with gobstruck silence as they looked at each other in total ignorance. I had to leave the room to avoid laughing aloud. I listened from the kitchen. Finally one of them timidly asked the inevitable question.

"What's a Woofer?"

The discussion, of course, was all very serious, and they all learned about how it's important to emphasise the bass.





Marlene is knitting me some bedsocks.

About the village

Welcome to our village.

Like the residents' names, the place isn't called Shady Oaks. I chose the most stereotypically-obnoxious name I could think of, because I can't use its real name. Hey, I need my job, ok? Essentially I work in a retirement home - to clear up any misunderstanding, this is not the same as a nursing home, invalid home or convalescent home. The people who live here look after themselves, have lives, and don't drool while staring into space. That's the line that seperates us from being a nursing home: really, this is just a bunch of old people that have sold their family homes and bought apartments in the same complex, with the added bonus of meals provided and 24-hour helpers on hand.

The lifestyle village is not-for-profit, but we're in a very well-to-do neighbourhood and the apartments are every bit as expensive as any others in the suburb. There are about 60 residents altogether.

They're arranged in four blocks, which are of various snobbishness. The first is called Majestic Royale. Yes. Ornate iron ballustrades, ivy trailing onto white columns, wrap-around verandahs, display cabinets housing ornaments and dinner sets in fine bone china. The living room has large, comfortable couches, elegant lamps, oil paintings etc. Anyway, you get the idea, but nobody ever uses the room, since they're mostly snobs who stay in their own expensive little apartments and do expensive things. Most of the residents are aristocratic in attitude and think they're living in a five-star hotel.

Then we have The Courtyard. They all have kitchens, bay windows and verandahs, and are quite modern and fresh-feeling.

Lastly there are Miller House and Barrett House. All of the apartments here are "economy" class, mostly single rooms without kitchens. Miller and Barrett each have a communal lounge area - and these get used a lot, as many of the residents don't have televisions of their own.

Each block has a dining room. One staff member serves Miller and Courtyard, the other staff member serves Barrett and Royale. I hate it when I have to do Barrett and Royale. The Barrett people are my favourites. If their plate is cold they stick it in the microwave with a cheery grin. The Royale people suck royal ass. If their napkin is crooked they write a letter of complaint to the board of directors.

Despite the Royale people... I do like my job. Usually.

Meet Catherine.

Surname not included.

I think it's pretty obvious why, if you're read any of the entries. Most of them paint either me, the other staff, or the residents in a less-than-perfect light. I prefer not to make residents look like mental cases... but in some cases, it's what they are. So the residents' names are all changed, too.

You might well have thought old people are not funny. I used to think that. Well, they are. And you probably think it's mean to laugh at old people. Well, it is. Of course, it's bound to cause some horror that I am laughing myself stupid at something an oldie did this week.

We are all going to be old one day. I hope that when I turn wrinkly, some young person gets a laugh out of something that I say.

I live in a middle-class suburb in Australia. I'm an ordinary girl with a rather menial job. My job is to set the tables, place the pre-cooked food into the oven, slop the soup into their bowls, dish up the delectable food, then make tea and coffee. After that, I wash dishes and mop the kitchen floor. Are you jealous yet?

I'm actually tertiary-qualified in a totally unrelated field. While three-quarters through a second qualification I became completely burned out, quit my studies, and sat on my butt amassing tremendous debt. Fortunately my relatives felt disgusted at my plight and were kind enough to drag me into helping out at this place. And I'm still here. It seems like when you're earning enough money to live on, and you hate the jobs that you're qualified for, it's very easy to just stay and never move on.

Introduction

I first wrote these stories in about 2004. At the time I was so concerned with protecting the identities of the residents concerned that I took great pains to call myself "Catherine" and I changed many of the incidents. I knew that one day these were stories that deserved to be told - they are not simply making fun of people, but often showing a side of the elderly that few of us pay much attention to. How easy is it to dismiss a person simply because they are of advanced age? And yet they are often vibrant, funny, clever, and with a lust for life that we could learn a great deal from.

Most of the people in these stories have now passed away. Of those who remain, you're unlikely to recognise them as individuals. Indeed, not only did I change the names, but often I have exaggerated or interchanged personality traits - so the people you will meet in here didn't really exist, in exact forms anyway. For example, the character of "Ted" is an amalgamation of three elderly residents. I'd like to think it's more interesting that way (even if it makes him quite an unsavoury person).

I never wrote these to ridicule people. If that's what you think while reading, you've missed the point. Since the first day I began working at the village, I have been on a personal quest to educate people. These are not drooling vegetables, they are real human beings like you and I - they are vivacious and FULL of life, whether their bodies show it or not! And they would hate to be thought of as society's leftovers. They belong here right beside you and me, and want people to appreciate them. So I hope you appreciate their stories. If these blog entries don't do them justice, then the fault is mine alone.

Elisa