If you could call anywhere the canary in the coalmine of incompetence and chaos, it would be care homes. At the start of the coronavirus crisis, it was the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, and his “protective ring”, which, in reality, meant insufficient testing, inadequate PPE and mass do-not-resuscitate orders because, come on, if you don’t try to save people’s lives, who can truthfully say you failed? By mid-June, care homes were the high-water mark of the tragedy, with more than 16,000 dead in that one setting. Recently, the appalling cost of mismanagement on a human level has been apparent in these homes: patients with dementia losing the will to live without family visits, a government unable to muster a response to Covid and also blinded by it, apparently devoid of feeling for anyone with anything other than coronavirus.
In the midst of it all, my mother ended up in a care home, following an event that we would normally call falling over but, for reasons of endemic ageism (in my view), we now call “having a fall”. The two days she spent in hospital were worse in terms of visiting, since not only could my sister and I not see her, but we could feel the hot anxiety of the nursing staff as we hovered outside the door trying to pass her a power bank for her phone.
Set against that, although by any normal measure, the care-home “window visit” is incalculably bad, it is also unimaginably good. When I open the window, my mother can hear me, but it is also freezing, so it always ends with one or both of us going: “I’m sorry, I’m just too cold.” The window opens to the exact width of my head minus three millimetres; I keep my head outside the window for this reason, but then a doctor will come in wearing a mask, and I really can’t hear her, so I have to wedge my head through, like a resourceful pig that has found a loophole in the pen system. It is really hard to sound like a plausible and responsible family member in this position. “Ideally, she’d like to be home as soon as possible and what we need is a clinical view on how much care she needs … Oh, and there is a problem with the timing of her medication,” is what comes out of my mouth, but I can see from the doctor’s face that what she is hearing is more of an oinking noise.
One time I got stuck, but I don’t think anyone noticed. My sister has a tiny head, which, for some reason, our dad was extremely proud of, and spent the entire 70s and 80s going: “Look at that head! It’s two denominations below the national mean.” The one time my sister and I visited together (window crowds are frowned on), I watched her pop effortlessly in and out of the gap and thought: “Huh. This tiny head has really come into its own.”
Often, my visits coincide with a guy at the next window, visiting his mother. My mum always has a problem with her phone, and his mum always has a problem with her bank statement, and I can hear him shouting: “What payment do you think is missing?”, but only when I’m not shouting: “I don’t think it goes any louder.” It occurred to me that we should come to a Strangers on a Train arrangement and swap mothers – not in order to kill them, just for variety, really. I would love to be worrying about a bank statement for a change.
As miserable as it is being outside the care home, that is nothing compared with how miserable it is being inside – frustrating and dehumanising and also very boring. It is not in my mother’s nature to moan about unalterable circumstances, so she complains about her phone instead, until finally on day 10, I took her an old phone of mine and swapped the sim cards, changed the phone ID, made the font as big as it would go, hopped on my bike and went home.
Four or five hours passed. That seemed to me to be a good sign that maybe the phone was working. In fact, it was because my mother was reading all the messages between me and my sister from 2016 to 2019. “You never told me P and M had split up,” was only the beginning. “Why didn’t you just say you didn’t want to wear a moustache over Christmas dinner?” (It’s a long story.) “I can’t believe you still call me the old trout!” I came out of the tube to three inches of texts from my sister, all variations on a set of instructions to make my phone self-destruct from a distance, or failing that, to break into the home and steal it. Well, I couldn’t do the first, because I’m not Bill Gates, and in an age when you are not even allowed into a care home, the idea of burgling one at 10.45pm is a world away. But to look on the bright side, at least for that short breath of time, it must have felt as if we were in the room.