Dad was 72 today. I visited him tonight after a long day, arriving with passable takeaway DOME coffee and exceptional home-made vanilla slice not made in our home.
Dad is sitting in the communal lounge watching Andre Rieu on the big screen playing his rather formulaic “violin virtuoso” with all the panache he can muster. There is some singer in a tux with a dog on a lead and a solidly built bloke playing, of all things, an anvil, keeping in time with the orchestra. The audience love it – the one on the screen anyway – all fifty-something ladies coiffured and over-made. The audience watching the audience seem non-plussed, as happens after about two pm for dementia patients. There are four others besides Dad, old ladies, all unruly grey hair and nightgowns, downing their last cup of tea and sandwich. Everyone else is bedded down apparently. The lounge is an agreeable room. It’s furnished comfortably, and for a locked dementia wing, manages to pull off elegant quite well.
We sit talking and dipping in and out of Andre’s quirky German style. A few other people straggle through. There are the walkers – the ones who do the rounds of the wing incessantly – muttering and chirping. One lady stands there in her nightie and socks childlike, asking for the direction to her room again. A nurse helps her on her way. The gruff old bloke with the moustache and attitude bristles in and sits next to Dad, demanding the paper. Dad takes this as his cue to leave, but I cajole him in to staying a few more minutes. He spends enough time in his room as it is.
The ageing of the Australian population has thrown up a peculiar and happy situation. In a delicious irony the post-war wave of migrants, mostly white people from old Europe and the UK, are being cared for by the new century’s wave of migrants, overwhelmingly sub-Saharan Africans and South East Asians. There are many 457 visa workers employed as carers and nurses in aged care facilities in Australia, and for that we should be grateful. As my brother noted, what better cultures to draw from than from those who value old age and who see dignity in grey heads. Ok, perhaps they are paid to care, but their tenderness and cheerfulness is moving.
For some reason Andre’s setting also includes an ice-rink and in between the German conversation he is having with his German (?) audience he says the words “Titanic” and “My Heart Will Go On” at which point a beautiful young couple come out and ice-skate to the orchestra playing that song. I note the irony of the Titanic being celebrated with ice. It’s cheesy and ditzy, but as I stare at the big screen, surrounded with balloons, a Happy Birthday sign and a print out of Dad’s name blu-takked underneath, I feel a tear well up. What the hey? Crying to Celine Dion? I will admit shedding a tear over Killing Joke’s 1980’s guitar driven punk classic Love Like Blood, but this?
By this stage Dad is flagging, so we wander slowly down to his room, saying “Night” to a few of the staff, and the one resident who manages a smile.
“Someone’s trying to break in here you know,” said Dad, gravely as we walk.
“Never mind ‘break in’, they’re all trying to break out.” We laugh, way too loudly for this time of night.
After helping Dad with his nightly routine, including sorting out why his hearing aids are not working again (turned out to be batteries – again!) I pray with him when he’s in bed. I don’t hold back in my prayers with Dad, asking God to give him strength to get through this difficult phase of life, and imploring Jesus to come quickly and rescue him from this body of death.
“Thank you Lord that the resurrection is our hope” I pray for the umpteenth time.
“Amen” resounds Dad at that exact line, also for the umpteenth time.
And then with a “love you” I leave for the umpteenth time, feeling guilty for the umpteenth time, and asking, for the umpteenth time, to be buzzed out by a staff member. I drive out, and after filling up at a petrol station, settle in for the long drive back to the hills.