The window of opportunity is closing.
Visiting someone in a nursing home used to be possible after eleven in the morning, by which time everyone was breakfasted, medicated and dressed and pushed into their usual position, and before twelve noon, when the process of pushing everyone to the dining room would begin; and between two o’clock, by which time lunch was over, and four o’clock, when the process of pushing everyone to the dining room would recommence; the evening meal being followed by the beginning of the process of everyone being put to bed.
Visiting two nursing homes in the afternoon earlier in the month: a 2.30 arrival at the first meant walking into the day room where all the residents were meant to be participating in a music and exercise class, some were asleep, others stared ahead indifferently. Finding a stool on which to sit, I sat in the corner beside the man I wished to see, he was bemused by what was happening around him.
Reaching the second home at 3.15 pm, the man I sought was sitting in the day room, in one of the chairs that lined the walls. A nurse picked up a chair and placed it directly in front of him and invited me to sit down. There were people sat either side and conversation would have been difficult.
‘Shall we go down to the window?’ I said to him (four chairs in a row were empty).
‘All right’, he said, and we walked down to the empty seats.
‘Where are you taking him?’ came an interrogative response from the nurse. Attempting a smile, I pointed to the chairs.
We talked for fifteen minutes when a staff member approached us, ‘It’s time for music now.’ I took my leave from renditions of ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’ or whatever it was that awaited.
Stung by the experiences, I attempted visiting two other homes after eleven this morning; in both, the people I sought were just receiving their morning ablutions. Judging by previous visits, one of them will be back in bed by three this afternoon.
The inspection regime to which homes are subject has resulted in a trend toward fewer and larger homes. In times past, homes would be that; houses that had once been family residences adapted for the care of older people. There would have been a different feel, a different mood in the place.
For seven years in a rural Ulster parish, I visited a home for 13 people, at four o’clock each Monday afternoon; at one point, seven of the thirteen residing there were my own parishioners. It was not perfect, but it had a homely atmosphere. The day rooms were smaller and more numerous; no-one imposed music or bingo; there was a chance for privacy, a chance for conversations not overheard by the entire resident population.
Perhaps the reduction of opportunities for visiting is intentional; perhaps visitors are a nuisance, their presence interrupting the smooth running of the home. Whatever the reason, there is an increasing feeling in some homes that one is not wanted on the premises.