A dying Victorian woman

by A. L. Kennedy

Finally! (Issue I/2020)


The writer A. L. Kennedy. Photographer: Robin Niedojadlo

Old age, it seems, is something that only happens to other people. We like the things that pleased us when we were 40, 20, 5. It takes a lot to prevent us remaining us, drifting free from time. It takes a lot to make long life a punishment, to make us rush towards death. Elderly care homes and community groups are full of elderly people who talk about ‘helping the elderly’, a group of which they are somehow not a member. Even in care homes, it can be possible to feel one is less old and less unfortunate than others. It’s only when we’re tired, in pain, alone, bewildered, that our age springs out at us and makes our failings ominous. Under sufficiently hard conditions people in their forties can feel old. With the UK’s life expectancy falling for the first time in generations, the age at which we may die, may feel exhausted, is creeping closer. Uncared-for, we perish.

One of my first encounters with the very old came when I was very young. Next door to our house in Dundee lived the eternally unmarried Miss Dickie. She had attended my school, back when the addition of girls to its classes was an innovation. My mother sent me round to sit with Miss Dickie. Go and keep her company. Go and have tea. Go and listen to her stories. This used to happen a lot in the UK when the elderly were still held within communities and families, rather than excluded in care facilities.

Miss Dickie was the first person with whom I had ever taken tea. I can still recall the awkwardness of delicate crockery: breakable cups, saucers, side plates, the difficulties of eating without a table, of having to like tea. Miss Dickie would have been born somewhere near the close of the 19th century and occupied the upstairs apartment created when her family home was split in two. She had clear and gleeful suffragette memories of pouring acid into letter boxes as a protest for female enfranchisement. She never explained where she got the acid. I don’t recall her being confused or fragile, only slow and somehow magical, full of unreachable times. She had passed through two world wars, unscathed.

One day I was told that she was dead. I wasn’t exactly sad, more surprised. I hadn’t associated great age with dying

Dundee, though a port, wasn’t severely bombed, but did have a tradition of military service for the working poor and links with the kilted Black Watch regiment. Dundee was used to men never returning, to strong women who were breadwinners, working in mills. Miss Dickie was part of a tradition of strength, endurance. Of course, time came for her, nonetheless. One day I was told that she was dead. I wasn’t exactly sad, more surprised. I hadn’t associated great age with dying. Other people moved into her flat. I didn’t visit them.

My maternal grandfather’s mother was also an amazingly ancient presence in my childhood. I would find her in my aunt’s house, swaddled in rugs like a reptilian life form, apparently oblivious to her surroundings, but with a keen remaining interest in televised horse races. In that working class, Staffordshire household, a continuing interest in betting on horses was seen as a triumph. I was never sure if she knew who I was. I visited my great grandmother for the last time in hospital. A dying Victorian, her sliver of a body was lost in what I remember as an oddly thick, cloudy oxygen tent. It was almost impossible to see her. Although I went and walked to the bedside, it seemed she was already somewhere else, that the tent was holding her inside a piece of wherever she was going. 

My grandfather waited by the wall of the ward, far from her terrifying bed. This confused me. He looked utterly distraught and I had never seen him be anything but phlegmatic, strong. He said he wasn’t going any nearer. He didn’t want to remember her like that. It was years before I discovered that his father had been a wife-beating drunk. As a child I didn’t know that my grandfather spent his youth waiting, cultivating fitness, becoming a boxer, until that day when he was big enough and strong enough to stop his father. He had always fought for his mother, defended his mother. In that hospital ward there was no more he could do.

My wiry, loud laughing, flirty grandmother never seemed old. A deeply skilled French polisher she only drifted into retirement in her 80’s and then worked as a volunteer in a charity shop. She and her husband always planned to go into business together. When we went through her things after her death, my grandfather and I found the pamphlets from British Telecom explaining how to get a business telephone number. For a moment we both seemed to sway over a chasm full of things undone. Granny’s first husband died within days of their wedding and so she had chose a conspicuously healthy second husband, ten years her junior. So, of course, my grandfather was left behind.

His body had made my grandfather old. It had prevented him from maintaining his elegance

Grandfather, plagued by a weak heart, eventually decided to pick himself a care home. I think he wanted to be around people. This was back in the late 1980’s when there were many elderly care options, many ways to be helped and to retain one’s dignity. The place seemed more institutional than some of the options offered, but I think it reminded him of his days as an apprentice. It was still in his old neighbourhood and he could joke about with men whose culture and history he shared. He taught residents memory tricks drawn from the skillset of a dangerous cribbage and poker player. He flirted a little, but the open wound of missing his wife never left him. He always walked with a full-length umbrella to save himself from looking like someone who needed a walking stick. He confessed that he paused to look in shop windows as a he went, so he could rest his legs. He could no longer be the ferocious pensioner who knocked out a would-be burglar and then coolly called the police. His body had made him old. It had prevented him from maintaining his elegance. Our healthcare was already beginning to collapse. A hospital had sent him home with bedsores, undernourished. He needed blood transfusions, but they rationed them. He’d feel well for a week or so and then it would fade. He knew he could use the NHS to kill himself.

The last time we met, he beat me at cribbage, played to the limit of his ability as he never quite had when he was teaching me. Both a Middleweight boxer and a former First Aider for his factory, my grandfather had a good understanding of the human body and what it could stand. He told me he was going in for a heart operation and hoped he would die on the table. He couldn’t be who he was any more. I suppose that I didn’t believe him and yet I took so many photographs that day that he began to look uncomfortable. I stopped. When I kissed him goodbye on the frosty pavement outside, the gesture was awkward because I was wearing a hat. My closest, most loved male relation and our last kiss was botched. 

The operation didn’t kill him. A preoperative test ruined his weakened heart. The procedure was notorious for causing the death of frail patients. 

The day he died, I was too late to the hospital, although he knew I was on the way. His brother was with him. I hate to believe, but can’t help thinking, that his heart’s little flicker of happiness at my arrival was the last straw. We loved each other.

Around this time I was working as a writer in residence with social work departments and a disability charity. I spent many hours sitting with survivors of World War 2 in groups, in bedrooms, in lounges. There was already a marked disparity between the good and the failing council homes. The former had edible food, pleasant furnishings, activities – not like the failing care homes and geriatric wards, the ones stinking of cabbage and human waste, wracked with screaming, the lonely human beings left spattered with food and shit, sitting in pools of urine, crying, staring, shaking. 

The belongings of each lifetime pared down to a scatter of objects in one small room

I would listen as I had to Miss Dickie, hearing stories that explained identities that used to be familiar to relatives and friends. Staff often had no time to listen. Even the kind, clean homes had little privacy and were filled with dying people, the belongings of each lifetime pared down to a scatter of objects in one small room. The cruel homes made everyone feel old, myself included, made everyone want to leave, even if death was their only way out.

Those stories – of beauty, normality, humour, kindness, bravery, determination, bewilderment – have stayed with me. They began my rejection of the easy jingoism the UK has increasingly embraced as the last of the war generation falls silent. Apparently, we love them, but not enough to look after them.

The last few years have seen me watch a friend go from an independent perky old lady to a fearful, frail, shell. Her initial stroke and fall was unfortunate, but lack of subsequent care led to a cascade of bad outcomes. After good initial rehabilitation she at home, to a lovely London apartment overlooking Hyde Park. Her home care was provided by two private companies. Underpaid carers with impossible schedules couldn’t arrive on time. She worried when meals would arrive. She lost weight. She panicked. She might be put to bed at 5pm, or 10pm, or later. Night care is unavailable. Complaints were met with blank confirmations that tasks had been performed and no acknowledgement of when or how. My friend had paid tax all her life in expectation of care. Like so many others she was betrayed. Often alone and afraid, she had preventable falls, more strokes. She is now in a care home that she hates ‘for her own safety’. She often tells me that she’d like someone to kill her. Her circumstances make her more than old, they make her crippled.

UK care homes, often privatised, are now failing and dumping elderly residents on the state. Complaints about abusive treatment recur in the news cycle – human beings restrained, beaten, doped to keep them quiet. Rooted in communities, busy, actively alive, old people can retain dignity, hope, plans – keep at bay the symptoms of age. Alone, our elderly join our disabled, our urban children, our working poor in a society which no longer strives to maintain their dignity, to keep them alive.

My beautiful mother, who reads anything and everything, who sings and dances in her kitchen, my mother who can cry with joy – I can’t see her as old

My mother’s village is full of lively pensioners. Here and there someone crosses the hundred year threshold and is still pottering, involved, chatting, human. But people worry their hospitals will fail them, as they have failed others. They worry that the one GP practice available seems more interested in cash flow that medical care. People swap stories of those sent home as fit who were, in fact, dying. They worry their state pensions – on average 23% of pre-retirement earnings – aren’t keeping up. Jumble sales are popular, as are sales of home baking and cheap, misshapen eggs from a local farm.

My beautiful mother, who reads anything and everything, who likes my German editor, who sings and dances in her kitchen and who handled a broken hip just fine, my mother who can cry with joy – I can’t see her as old. She is. I save her notes and emails, get ready. I try to keep the cruelty from her, but still the ambient stress tires her. She worries that so many people are so obviously in pain.

I go to the gym. I’m probably fitter now than I ever have been. I am getting ready for how hard it will be. I attend the children’s marches and look at their faces, see how we have failed them, made them already so old.

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