A fictionalized story based on the experiences of many thousands of vulnerable care home residents around the world.
The warning travels past its intended recipient down the hall, around the corner and into the living room where Cricket is transferring her mother Annie from an armchair into a wheelchair. I’ve heard gentler “Achtungs” from soldiers in Frankfurt airport, Cricket thinks to herself as she prepares to take Annie up to the dementia ward for supper.
Annie used to enjoy her meals with her friend Sally in the main dining room, but then the staff said she was “difficult to manage,” always wanting to get up and walk around, so she has to eat in the dementia ward where people are fed instead of feeding themselves, and everything is uniformly creamy in texture. The only way to tell the carrots from the peas, potatoes or meat is the colour. Cricket often wonders if the dollops of orange, green, white and grey glop taste any different one from the other, but she can’t bring herself to test them. Her stomach flips at the thought.
“Hannah!” The voice is angrier this time; it belongs to the one Cricket mentally calls Nurse Ratched. “Don’t touch!!”
“I was repairing it–” Hannah, who is in the mid-stages of dementia attempts to justify whatever it is she has done to get on Ratched’s rather broad bad side.
“You weren’t repairing it!” You were erasing it!” Ratched scolds.
“No, I–” Hannah tries again.
“Give me that!” Nurse Ratched commands. “Go and sit down!”
Cricket has no idea what precipitated the exchange, but she often hears Ratched and her colleagues speak to residents like bad parents do their ill-behaved children.
“No Agnes, I’m busy. You’ll have to wait,” to the 96-year-old with rouge on her cheeks as she stands by the nurses’ station with her walker.
“You can’t have more now, you just finished one,” to rail-thin Diane who constantly opens cupboards in search of a drink.
“You’ll just have to deal with it,” when Elizabeth, who’s body seems to be tied up in painful knots, complains of not being able to breathe.
Worse than the words is the delivery: almost invariably in that tone. The one that would make you want to smack anyone who used it on you. It’s why Annie is being sedated for aggressive behaviour. She went beyond wanting to give them a smack; she went ahead and did it. People who live with Alzheimer’s disease leave social graces behind along with their memories and their abilities to process things like the rest of us; they say what they mean and act how they feel.
Cricket knows the kind of treatment Annie gets when she’s not there–the same kind she sees and hears doled out to others. It’s why Cricket is relocating Annie; but the move is still a few weeks away. Mind your Ps and Qs, don’t make things worse than they already are.
Cricket puts one hand behind Annie’s left knee and lifts her foot onto the footrest with the other. Annie’s legs are full of bruises, bandages and band-aids; they stem the Coumadin tide. Cricket repeats the process with the left foot, and then kicks free the wheel locks. It’s 4:45 p.m.; dinner’s at 5. The main floor dining room is next to the living room where Cricket, Annie and Sally have been for the last hour and a half drinking tea, singing songs and talking nonsense. Sally left a few minutes earlier under her own steam.
Apparently, Nurse Ratched doesn’t know Cricket and Annie are in the living room within earshot. “Hannah! I said go and sit down!” she snaps again. Meanwhile, daughter and mother are in motion. They roll out of the living room and around the corner into the hall where 90-year-old Hannah’s back comes into view. She’s leaning on her walker about fifteen feet away, next to the big white board on which the month’s activities are written: Monday afternoon: bingo; Wednesday morning: sing-along; Sunday afternoon: religious service; “Phyllis’ birthday” has a green squiggle around it on the 28th.
Nurse Ratched is a few paces beyond Hannah. “She erased the six from the 26th on the calendar,” Ratched complains, presumably to another staff member in the dining room; the reply is unintelligible. Ratched turns around; she sees Cricket and Annie heading down the hall toward her.
The transformation is astonishing. Ratched closes the gap between herself and Hannah, and, without skipping a beat, puts her arm around Hannah’s shoulder. She leans in gentle and close, and says just loud enough for Cricket to hear, “It’s time for dinner my love, would you like to go in and sit down please?” Her voice is soft, golden, liquid honey.
Cricket holds her tongue. She squeezes Annie past Hannah and Ratched and into the elevator bound for higher ground. Only a few more weeks to go. Only a few more weeks.