We have lost several people at the care home so far this winter — a quarter of the small population in Don’s dementia ward in just 10 weeks. No flu closure, thanks to vigilance and luck, but winter is always a bad time for elders. The pattern of a fall, a broken hip, and then within a short time refusal to eat or drink, is frequent.
Because we, residents, staff and visiting family, see each other often, it is like a village, and a death shakes the whole ward. One can tell when one walks in – there is a sombre mood, quieter voices, sometimes a red or weepy eye — a bed in the hallway and a room with no name on the door, being painted. We are all bound in this together, and gently grieve.
The staff know our loved ones so well, and by and large are able to do this difficult job because they are caring people and fond of the people they are looking after. They are affected by this grim aspect of their job and the situation. It must be very stressful, and I think it takes special people to help the dying, day in and day out, especially the difficult ones with dementia. These are the care workers in the midst of a modern, far-too-hidden epidemic. They don’t get the accolades on TV for fighting a new plague, but their job, grim and tedious, is just as heroic.
A new patient will be along in just 24 hours because the need for beds is so great. You know, and they know, that when a new patient comes in – no matter how well they walk or talk – and many of them are still reading at a simple level – the same end is now inevitable.
Dementia is not curable, is degenerative, and always fatal.
Nonetheless we carry on. We the family members who visit, miss the ones who no longer come. The staff avoids emotion because the one skill these residents retain is emotional sensitivity. Once upon a time, last year when my love was better, they carried a body out through the ward. Don and his friend freaked out — deciding that they were being held in the ward to be killed and eaten. They staged a mini riot, tore papers off the walls, overturned a laundry cart. And who can blame them?
But now my love talks only in made up words – syllables that sound like words but aren’t – except when he pauses, with a puzzled look, stares off for a long time and says, “I don’t know….I don’t know.”