How the Old Die
In bed, incoherent, incontinent, in geriatric wards, in bedlam, in death bedlam.
Hospital bed, death bed, the dying are hooked up to drips, plugged into monitors, plumbed into plastic pouches – tubes and wires everywhere pumping in drugs and draining away bodily fluids. There but for the grace of God, I too shall go, perhaps an emaciated cancer ridden husk, swathed in regulation paper hospital pyjamas. Lapsing in and out of consciousness, incapable of distinguishing those around me – providing of course someone is there. The worst fear – to die alone, in the impersonal indifference of a geriatric ward.
Oh “let me die a young man’s death,” in Roger McGough mode or just let me go quietly in my sleep at home. The day I receive my death sentence, let me fade away in a numb alcoholic, haze of a full-bodied red wine and fistfuls of painkillers. Don’t try to get me a stay of execution, use your valuable time and treatments on those who still have a chance of life.
We have been shunted off to the further-most corner of an impersonal geriatric ward, curtained off in a bay as life goes on around us. Doped up on morphine, plumbed into a piss pouch, lapsing in and out of consciousness as we – the next of kin, stand round the bed in silence, taking turns to hold the hands of the dying, to mop her brow or wipe away the spittle from round her mouth.
WE are – myself, my overweight, wheelchair-bound arthritic and asthmatic aunt (mum’s sister) and my Uncle, who has just a few years before, has seen his own son die.
Mum opens her eyes. A sign of life, though we know she won’t last out the day. We try to talk to the dying. Eyes close. Is this it? There is still some slow, frail breathing and suddenly, nothing.
Death comes silent, unannounced, matter of fact, without ceremony. No last words, no meaningful last life gestures. Mum just fades and we are gathered round the bed in stunned silence wondering what to do now.
All around us, life goes on
“Oh Lord Have Mercy on me!” screams the senile old woman in the next bed screams. Pale as a ghost and thin as a death camp Jew, she has been imploring the Almighty all afternoon. Nurse says that she really should be on a psychiatric ward, but once you’re over 65, over the hill, over the right to any decent and humane treatment it’s geriatric – death row. – All the oldies lumped in together, from hip replacements to the mad and the dying. This is Bedlam.
Out on the reception desk, I ask if mum can’t be shunted off to a single room. You only die once, so at least die in peace. But then what’s a little bedlam when you’re going to Rest In Peace for eternity? The desk nurse peers at me so long and hard over her spectacles, that I half expect her eyeballs to slip out their sockets and slide down her long angular nose in contempt.
“I’m sorry. There are no rooms available” she replies in smooth, cold disdain as if to say, that people die on the wards everyday, why should it be any different for my mum.
In the bays opposite mum’s, there is life after death. One woman is sitting up in bad reading the Daily Mail. Another watches TV and at the far end of the ward, a lady in traction has all her family round her bed – children and grandchildren, laughing, gorging on a box of chocs and discussing about “when gran comes home.”
The tea lady bangs, bumps and bashes her way into the ward with her trolley. Time for a “luverly cuppa” – the tradtionial weak, milky luke warm elixir that is a national cure for everything from depression to … When I was 16, I was run over by a Ford escort in Bromley high street – not too seriously hurt, but definitely dazed and confused, my first memory is of a lady running out a fish and chip shop to offer me a cup of tea.
Mrs Tea lady pops her head round the curtain and sees that mum is in no state for a cup of slops. No, not even a “luverly” National Health “cuppa” will raise mum from the ead
So Mrs T does the rounds of the other bays.
“W-O-U-L-D Y-O-U L-I-K-E A C-U-P O-F T-E-A D-E-A-R?
She mouths monotone and Braille-like at all the old “loves” and dears” as if they are all educationally sub normal, and, most of the ladies, being of that generation that lived with wartime rationing, accept the free tea with over-profuse thanks, as if it were old Mr Churchill himself giving them the milky slops.
And when death came, there was a brief silence. Everyone knew. As I head off to find a nurse I get looks of detached compassion. The woman opposite peers over her paper and mouths “sorry.”
I need a nurse to find out the SOPs for the recently deceased and the newly bereaved.
“I’ll be there shortly,” snaps a nurse.
As for the recently bereaved – I know what the standard operating procedures are supposed to be – wailing, sobbing, wringing of hands, but there is no time for that. I am just told to clear out mum’s locker and pretty much just “get outa here.”
I’m putting mum’s personal effects into a holdall. In pops the nurse to give me a paper to take to the Registrar.
“Can you hurry up please, we have to get your mum down to the morgue and get the bed ready for the next patient.” I hope that the next patient isn’t told what happened to the previous occupant of the bed (deathbed)
And then I’m out in the car park in the afterlife. Uncle and Aunt get into their car and speed off with the words “if you need any help… ,” and I am left there fumbling in my pockets for my bus pass.
And I think that the first few hours of life after death are the same for everyone . Bus rides back to lonely flats. Cleaning to be done and beds to made for the impending visit from relatives. A trip to the supermarket, arrangements for burial, and endless advice cum criticism from others “who know better,” as to the choices for funeral arrangements.