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A Moving Move

For the past 26 years, I have been advocating and pontificating about the institutionalisation of older people, the loneliness, helplessness and boredom they experience and the role of Caregivers in creating a life worth living. I have lectured and trained and workshopped, often considered “an expert” in the eld (a title I would never take on for myself!). I have stood on the world stage presenting research on long-term care and how this should be changed. I have helped families and friends with transitions in care and how to deal with guilt and the emotions around having to care for an ageing parent. I never thought – as we do – that one day it might be my turn.

Over the last few years, especially after the death of my Father two years ago, I saw my Mother becoming more lonely and helpless, depressed, frail of body and mind. Her days became shorter, nights longer, memories fading and her health deteriorating. Even though she lived in her home with her beloved Sally dog, and had a live-in companion and friends popping in, she was becoming more and more detached.

A series of bad falls eventually took their toll. It became clear that she could no longer live in her home – she needed more full-time care and support. The more my sister and I tried to ignore the signs, the clearer it became – my Mom would need to move to a Care Home. While we were very brave to make inquiries and arrange the necessary with the local Care Home, negotiating this with my Mother was incredibly hard. My Mother was the Matron of this home for many years. Like us, she never ever imagined that she would become a resident there. Feisty, strong-willed, stubborn. Like Mother like son and daughter, we are.

En route, I stop at Builder’s Warehouse to buy new flooring, a bedside cabinet, a bathroom vanity and other odds and ends to make her room – all of 3,8 × 2,9 m – less of a cell and more of human habitat. I lose my temper with slow service, realising how tense I am at the thought of what I am about to do… moving my Mother to her last home, giving up her home of the past 22 years.

Saturday morning we go directly to the old age home. I realise that I avoid going home first in fear of facing my Mom. We spend the day putting in a new wooden floor, putting up shelves. Almost every person in the home comes to look, commenting on the two “handymen”, asking questions and commenting on how beautiful the new floor looks. Exhausted we drive to Witsand. The mood at home is sombre, as much as my sister tries to be positive… she has done all the personal tasks of packing clothes and bedding and personal items. My Mother abdicates. Tells us we have to decide what we think is best…

On Sunday we take her best friends out to lunch. Everyone tells her how happy she will be. She does not look convinced, simply hangs her head and closes her eyes. We order pizzas for supper. We pack, and my sister washes and irons. We organise forms, Mother has to sign the house rules, which she reads slowly and thoroughly. A silence hangs in the house as she keeps her one hand on Sally sleeping in her basket.

At last, it is bedtime. I go to her room to say goodnight, she is sitting in bed, praying. One hand covers her eyes, the other is rubbing her shoulder. I wait outside her bedroom. It feels like forever before I hear her moving in the room. I go in and sit next to her on the bed. The conversation that follows is too heart-wrenching to repeat here. I can no longer be brave. My sister comes to the room and sits on the bed with us. For that moment our worlds stop as emotions take over.

This morning we take her favourite chair, a small fridge, all her sweets and chocolates and rusks, and a few photographs. The room now feels more cheerful. When she arrives with my sister we unpack and organise. People pop in, the staff welcome her with warmth and open hearts.

I cannot imagine that I have to leave her there. I bring Sally to sit with her on the bed for the last time, she tells Sally to be a good dog and to behave herself in PE. We leave her sitting on the bed, small, old, frail. Our strong Mother. But safe. Surrounded by people she has known for the past 60 years. The sun sets as we drive back to Cape Town in silence. I always thought I understood what families went through – I have seen this so often. Tonight I know that no one can ever understand this strange phenomenon when our parents become so frail that we have to make decisions on their behalf, the turmoil of emotions and doubts. I see her lying in the single bed in her tiny little room. I cannot help but wonder who will do this for me one day…

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