"Nothing prepares you for being the daughter of ageing parents."
Old people’s wards are hell for old people. Geriatric wards are bedlam, bonkers, bananas. A toothless woman screaming when left alone, a cry that reaches the high hospital ceiling. A woman effing and blinding – the polite curtain will not protect her from the indignity of a nappy change. A woman who lives the same moment in repeat, dressed up for going home in a bright red anorak, over the dressing gown, asking for the key to her house, saying over and over: “Am I going home today?” Or a woman who shouts at the nurses: “Stop treating me like a plate of mince.”
Earlier this year, my parents both ended up in hospital at around the same time and the cause was the same thing. Antibiotics. Or rather, dehydration caused by antibiotics. My mum was first; she was so dehydrated she was having visions. Antibiotics revolutionized the treatment of bacterial infections in the 20th century – but for old people they can dry the kidneys, give them fever, nausea, nerve damage and affect their balance.
Nothing properly prepares you for becoming a parent, true, but what seems to be even truer is that nothing prepares you for being the daughter of ageing parents.
You want to save them from their bodies letting them down faster than their heads, or from their heads going faster than their bodies. There are classes for the mothers of babies, but there’s no helping with your parents getting older, the super-loud clock. It seems that you live in two lives at once; the clock keeps dual time. January, when my mum first went into hospital, seems ages ago now and, simultaneously, a heartbeat away. The months have collapsed and folded into each other like a foldaway bed.
That day in January, my brother, father and I waited for six hours for an ambulance and then I waited 30 hours with my mum in the acute assessment unit, having finally been given a bay. A holding bay. Everybody there was doing their absolute best, but Glasgow Royal Infirmary now has to cover the catchment areas of other hospitals whose A&Es have closed, such as Stobhill. Please complain, stressed staff said to me.
The acute assessment unit was like Dante’s vision of hell: abandon all hope, ye who enter here. People lying on trolleys, wounded, bleeding, waiting, waiting, as new accidents arrive by ambulance. My mum, though delusional, held on to hope. Looking at an old man on a trolley wired to oxygen, she said: “Look at those two young lovebirds there.
Illustration by David Foldvari.
Throughout that long night journey, she was moved from corridor to corridor to have various tests done. All of the staff were stretched, on 12-hour shifts, but still standing. “Jackie, am I one of the world’s refugees?” she asked me. After a few days, and still not back from the land of dehydration, she said: “What is this place? Why are some people leaving and others staying?” I said: “It’s a hospital, Mum.” “This isn’t a democracy,” she said. And I was astonished that the word democracy could have been saved in her mind and the word hospital not. She didn’t understand for days what a hospital was. “Where am I?” she kept saying, seeing visions of five-legged women, pandas and polar bears. She wondered if the hospital was an Eskimo station. I could see what she meant: the nurses far away in a white box, the uber-whiteness. Outside, the snow lay thicker than hospital blankets. It felt as if we existed in a limbo land in the far north, a place that existed to hold or to anticipate grief.
But gradually she returned, and realised the woman in the opposite bed didn’t have five legs, after all, and started trying to walk again with the help of a Zimmer. After three weeks, I left to go back home, and then my dad was taken into hospital too. He was in a single ward, like solitary confinement. And they couldn’t visit each other in case my dad infected my mum. So they wrote letters from ward 50 to ward 35 and an empathetic porter carried them back and forth on a steel tray, I imagined, like a heart.
And though my mum, by the time she was released, knew that her life was charmed compared with the lives of the world’s refugees, and would praise and revere the NHS, her question kept repeating in my head. It seems to me as if the plight of old people, while not as horrific as the plight of refugees, shares some of the horror. Just as we live in a society that hasn’t caught up with technology, the kind of moral choices it gives people, we also live in a world that hasn’t kept up with its ageing population. We have the advances in medical science and technology that have kept people alive longer, but not the advances in how to treat our ageing population. Society is lagging behind the old, floundering and failing and falling.
There are certain small but piercing similarities between the treatment of the old and the treatment of refugees. The old are often displaced from their homes, moved out against their will; decisions are often made for them that they have no say over. Often, they are treated as imbeciles or halfwits, lumped together in one place, given clothes that don’t belong to them, treated as a fallen tribe or a beleaguered clan, incapable of any individuality. Nobody imagined my mother was a secretary of the Scottish peace movement, a primary teacher, a lifelong socialist, a witty woman. Out of hospital, my 85-year-old mum said: “Going into hospital at my age puts years on you. God save me from old people’s wards. You never think of yourself as old. You look across the ward and think, Am I like that?”
My dad wasn’t as dehydrated as my mum. My brother said: “Maw was on Pluto; Da, he was in Inverness.” I bought my mum a poppy-red Zimmer. She said: “You should have seen me in the hairdressers. All the old women crowding round my Zimmer. Talk about Zimmer envy. Zimmer rage, more like.”
When my dad came out of hospital, he’d lost a stone in weight and was withdrawn, as if he thought he was going to have to take his leave of the people he loved and couldn’t remain too close, like a cat. Then they discovered that he had helicobacter pylori and his weight loss was because of that, so he cheered up and even cracked jokes about his thinness. His backbone was poking through, giving him a sudden hunchback. “My back’s a jug handle, you could pick me up and pour me.” What saves us is our wit. If you can keep your wits about you when you’re old, perhaps it’s better. But then, as Diana Athill said to me once, perhaps it is worse, “because one is aware of what is happening”.
The Empathetic Store by Jackie Kay is published on 14 August by Mariscat Press, priced £6.
The article first appeared here in The Guardian