You would not have guessed from the outside of the house, but would you ever? The extended family kept the small lawn mown and the plants neat. The net curtains were fresh white.
‘Ready?’ I said to Jules, my current student. A smart girl, but this visit would test plenty of people with years of experience.
She nodded, swallowed. I sighed, and got out of the car. Nerves take years to go, then sometimes they come back. Sometimes it is good to have someone who is more nervous than you, because then you drop into the role of the calm one. I hoped that was not why I had brought her.
One step at the door, quite high, but the problems here weren’t physical. No answer, half a minute after ringing the bell. Hearing loss? Then a noise like some animal scrabbling at the other side. Did they have a dog? But it was at the top of the door. Clicks, some quiet voices, then the door opened and eyes glinted at me suspiciously from under unnaturally black hair.
‘Mrs Tailor? I’m the Occupational Therapist from social services, this is my—’
‘Thank goodness. I didn’t think I could cope another day. He is driving me insane. Just now he couldn’t even work a door knob and didn’t want to get out of the way. It’s everything, every little—’
I let it wash over me. An important part of the job, but not one the government is ever likely to recognise as cost-effective. Try putting that on your time-sheet.
Behind Mrs Tailor was a small, nondescript type of a man, but we were going to have to descript him anyway. He would have been taller than her if he had stood up straight, but it seemed a long time since he had. His face was like a garment that had been washed and worn to a crumpled greyness. ‘Mr Tailor,’ I greeted him. He nodded.
‘You won’t get much get out of talking to him,’ said the woman. I tried not to wince at the complete lack of shame in front of him. He showed no reaction.
‘We treat all people politely and with as much normality as possible, it’s in our job description,’ I said, as pleasantly as possible. ‘Perhaps it’d work best if Jules here looks after your husband while we talk. She can see how he makes a cup of tea, and you can tell me all about it.’
‘He can’t. I have to do all of that. He’s worse than a liability when he gets in the kitchen, it’s all I can do to keep him from burning us to death or flooding us with taps—’
‘If you could just hold on until I get my pen and paper out? Jules will keep him right.’
Jules, who had not got a word in edgeways any more than Mr T had, nodded. The hunched man smiled warily and wearily at her, and shuffled off towards the kitchen. It was a small house, there was really only one place it could be.
Mrs Tailor started following them. ‘If we could sit down and you can tell me how we can help?’ I reminded her, putting the question into it to make it seem less like a command. I kept my face as guileless as possible as I ushered her into her own lounge. A shadow on the floor made her jump; she must be wired like a deer that smelled wolves, constantly. Then she sat down after brushing the seat first. I was not so picky. There are some houses you warn your colleagues to wear old clothes for, but this wasn’t one. A little untidy, with the ornaments awry and some tea-things left on the brass fire surround. One of the cups was upside down.
‘It’s dreadful, dementia,’ she said. ‘The way it comes out of how they were before. Someone stubborn just gets more and more stubborn. Or they get even more obsessive. They don’t realise, either. But you’re married and it’s ’til death you do part, it’s not right to put someone into a home.’
‘If you really can’t cope, there’s no shame in it,’ I said. ‘Your spouse in their right mind would not want you to destroy your health by refusing to accept help. There is only so much that is humanly possible.’
‘I do want to go on as long as I can, but I need better locks on the front door. What if he goes out and gets lost? I couldn’t bear that. He fiddles around with them and sooner or later he will get through. The neighbours know, but it puts an awful burden on them. Or I can’t sleep properly in case…’
I just let her speak for a while, taking the odd note. The essence of the content was fairly easy. Throughout, her head never stopped being tilted towards the kitchen. In a lull, I heard quiet voices.
‘He’ll be telling her a load of rubbish,’ she put in.
‘We’ll write it down, but we’ll check our facts with your children, if it’s alright. It has to go in the report, but we’ll know who to believe.’ I felt rotten saying that. It was a little blunt.
She didn’t even notice, started talking again. After a while, I realised I would have to interrupt. Otherwise we would need to come back again.
But then she jumped to her feet. ‘I need to check on him.’ She rushed towards the kitchen door, but swayed and crashed against the frame. Someone in their eighties, trying to dash about like a teenager; the blood pressure can’t keep up.
‘You need to slow down a bit,’ I said. ‘If you have a fall, what will become of—’ I stopped myself.
‘I don’t need you to tell me what to do,’ she snapped, and opened the door. Inside, Jules and the husband were leaning against stained seventies formica work surfaces. The kettle had boiled a while ago.
‘You’re doing it wrong,’ said Mrs Tailor. ‘Do I have to do everything myself?’
Jules bit her lip.
‘It’s alright, Jules will keep him right,’ I said. ‘That reminds me, perhaps the two of you might benefit from an outing each week? We do have some day centres available, although unfortunately none of them has two places together. You might have to go to different ones.’
‘You mean he goes to a mental one!’ said Mrs T.
‘A place where he’ll be looked after for a few hours and will hopefully feel at ease,’ I said. ‘Same reason for yours.’
‘If he goes to one then why don’t I stay here and put my feet up?’
I tried to lead her back to the living room by standing sideways through the door, so she had to look around after me. ‘Our emotions are tied to places more than we realise. If you are always worried at home, you will relax more if you go somewhere you aren’t normally worried. We have some very good people who will look after you.’
‘Well, alright then.’ She finally came back and sat down. I shut the door, and wondered what her husband was like without her around. ‘I will need better locks on the front door.’
‘It’s… dodgy, locking people up, even when there’s dementia involved.’
‘What if he goes out and gets lost, or falls under a bus? Last month he was out for hours. I spent ages looking for him before our daughter came and found me, told me he was alright. We should tag him, like they do to those animals on television.’
‘It’s feasible these days, but we prefer not to,’ I said. ‘We’d try working up to it. First thing would just be a loud chime that goes off when the front door opens, let you know someone’s going in or coming out. If that doesn’t work, we could fit the next gadget up, and so on.’
We went through a few other things, purely practical matters. She did not really like any of them, but then, there was nothing in this situation to like. I wondered if she had a clear idea, conscious or unconscious, of what she wanted out of this. Probably, it was someone to listen to her and say “yes, it is horrible” a number of times. Which I did. It would not be enough.
The door whispered over the carpet and the husband entered with Jules behind him, hands twitching as if she wanted to grab him and hold him steady. I put my hand out, stopping his wife from springing up again. ‘Please, let’s just see how he does it.’
He did it well, serving us all with patterned china cups on saucers, leaf tea through a strainer. ‘Typical,’ she said. ‘Best behaviour because you’re here.’
‘Everyone has good days and bad,’ I said. ‘So, I can arrange for those day centres? It might be easier if we communicate through your daughter, in the circumstances. Perhaps if you could sign this form to let us speak with them, you know how it is with data protection these days…’
Getting up from the low, soft chair wasn’t that easy for me, either. I manoeuvred around the room and crouched down with the clipboard. Her hands shook as she took the pen. I pointed out the right line, and she made an unintelligible scrawl without reading first. Never ceases to amaze me, how easily you can get people to sign things.
‘Don’t worry about the bit where it says to print your name.’ I stood up and managed to step around the coffee table without spilling anything, going to the slumped man. ‘We get you both to sign. It’s central to care that we always treat everyone with dignity, whatever their circumstances.’
She sniffed. For a moment I thought it was derision, then I realised it was sadness. Her make-up was thick, but there was a watery shimmer inside the heavy banks of eyeliner.
‘That’s it then. We will be in touch. Thank you very much, and let me know if there are any problems.’
They both came with us to the door. The lock at the top was fitted upside-down, and Mrs Tailor turned the knob the wrong way. Then she turned it the right way, and tried to pull the door open without pressing the handle lower down. She said a bad word.
‘Here, dear.’ Mr Tailor gently reached past her and opened the door.
We said our goodbyes, and tried not to run down the path.
‘That was horrible,’ said Jules as we sat in the car. ‘Do you think she has moments when she knows?’
‘Perhaps,’ I said. ‘You get the assessment done alright?’
‘I think so. But… I feel sneaky, somehow. Like it was all underhanded.’
I turned the ignition. ‘Whatever works, Jules, whatever works.’