Posted by September Blue Saturday, 28 July 2007

Oscar the nursing home cat can predict death.

This does not surprise me. Cats are creepy, for one thing. And I've worked in three nursing homes, and all of them had their fair share of creepiness too. I don't mean that there was something disturbing and skin-crawling about working with people who were dying - although a lot of people do have huge problems with nursing homes for that reason, and we'd probably take better care of our very old people if so many of us weren't willing to pretend the places didn't exist, but that's another grumble for another time - but the homes I worked in had a creepiness all of their own. Locked doors with a reputation for slamming shut when nobody was around, residents who talked about seeing strange figures walking down the corridors, moments of weirdly prophetic lucidity from people who hadn't said a word in five years... we didn't have a Grim Purrer, but we had some great stories.

I think a lot of this comes from the kind of buildings that end up as nursing homes. One of the homes I worked in was modern and purpose-built (and unpleasantly designed and completely without soul, just like the Matron) (all right, that's mean, but to give you some idea of where I'm coming from, the evil witch did once tell me off for stopping in the middle of gathering laundry to hug a very upset patient who wanted a shoulder to cry on). The other two were old, rambly buildings which had been around for a long time, and you could feel it just by walking through the front door.

The first of them had once been a row of tiny terraced cottages, and was full of windy little staircases and huge gnarly oak beams and windowsills you could comfortably sit curled up in, and was such a warren of rooms and corridors that you could lose an angry and very mobile dementia patient for up to forty minutes, or so I would guess based on entirely hypothetical data because of course we never let such a thing happen. The other, my favourite, was a grand old Georgian house, built by a newly-wealthy merchant in the 1780s. It passed through a lot of hands after that, including those of a brilliant suffragette who turned it into a girls' boarding school in the 1860s, and it was the first place my grandfather worked as a newly-qualified doctor when it served as a GP's surgery in the 1930s and 40s. When I worked there, a lot of the patients remembered him from then and knew me as "Dr. C's granddaughter", which was a little strange in itself.

But! Creepy things! Back to the subject at hand.

I worked night shifts for a while in that third home, from 10pm to 8am. There were only three of us on duty at nights, two care assistants and a nurse, which meant that during rounds one person would be sent up alone to check on the top floor (where the most mobile patients with no dementia issues lived). As the new girl, that was usually my job, and it really wasn't a fun one: the top floor was dark, and the top floor was old, and the top floor had floorboards that creaked when you weren't even standing on them. The top floor also had Mary, a sweet woman in her nineties who kept paintings of her grandchildren on the walls and a collection of cuddly toys on her armchair. Mary was usually still awake at 3am rounds, so I'd check on her last and she'd chat to me for a while before I headed back downstairs to join the other staff. I'd been working there a month or so before she told me about the little girl in old-fashioned clothes who walked into her room sometimes, carrying a bag of sweets and offering them to Mary, and I stopped being brave enough to do the top-floor rounds without the landing light on. ("She's only a little girl, dear," Mary said when I told her this. "I don't think you need to worry.")

The only time I heard one of my colleagues actually scream, though, was on a day shift. Ivy, one of the patients with quite severe dementia, was soft-spoken and blissfully happy most of the time; she lived in a world of her mind's own devising, and judging from how calm and sweet it made her, it seemed like a beautiful, beautiful place indeed. The only time I heard her raise her voice was when one of the other care assistants, a teenage girl I'll call Katy, was brushing her hair and getting her ready for bed one night - Ivy looked up, gasped, grabbed the hairbrush out of Katy's hand, and shouted loud enough for for the whole corridor to hear, "There's a woman standing behind you and she's trying to wrap a chain around your neck!"

Cue screaming, eight other care assistants abandoning whatever they were doing and running down the corridor to Ivy's room, Katy pale and shaking, and the rest of us trying to calm her down and work out what had happened. Ivy looked at us in a very puzzled way for a while, then burst out into a huge, beaming smile and said "Well, aren't there a lot of you."

More nursing home stories in a later post, I think!