If there’s one thing one can observe in a residential care home, it is the necessity of humour throughout life. It is true that the human body ages in a cycle. Through life we travel the circumference of a circle. We begin a reliant baby, we start to learn, we grow up, become an adult, gain responsibilities, but never stop learning and laughing; then, we grow young again, in need of care and assistance. We might wear nappies. We might need help carrying out daily tasks – washing, toileting and walking. We might need assistance feeding ourselves, limited to a soft diet as we lose our teeth and chew with bare gums. Toothless or not, we hope to never lose our smile.
Ever since I was a child I have feared the thought of aging, of growing into an old, withered sack of skin and bones. I remember when I was ten, going to visit my great grandmother in hospital after she had a fall and spending the whole car journey home furtively gulping back tears, as my mind swam with freakish thoughts of dotage. Old age was certainly not something I would have associated with humour; but I have learnt now that every time you find some humour in a difficult situation, you win. Now, I remember her for her wit and feisty sense of humour.
Being young, healthy and able during the Covid-19 pandemic, I joined my sister working at a local care home, specialising in dementia care. Being in an environment where senility was the norm helped alleviate my fears. I have learnt that growing old is not something to be afraid of; it is inevitable and, therefore, must be accepted as part of life. Now I see it as an accomplishment to reach old age with so much experience, so many fascinating stories, and, most importantly, a good sense of humour.
My role in the care home was as activities supervisor. This meant I would paint, do crafts, play games, paint nails, chat with the residents and generally help keep them entertained. How bad could it be, I thought. To anyone with no experience of working in a care home (myself just a few weeks before), this job would sound easy. More of a voluntary pastime than something one should be paid for. It is not until you are in that environment, day-in-day-out, with the responsibility of keeping these absent-minded residents occupied, that you realise how draining it can be.
When I first started, I felt totally out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know how to deal with these ailing residents. If I’m honest, I was scared of them. My sister first took me into the communal lounge and introduced me to a posse of glum-looking women slumped in high-backed chairs. I felt like I was walking out onto a New York catwalk under the judgmental eyes of thousands of fashion critics who had so much more life experience than I may ever get. Six sets of unresponsive eyes glared at me, as if to say, ‘So what?’.
“Dinner!” one shouted, “tomato soup!”
It was daunting but the reality was that they simply didn’t grasp what my sister had said – the face mask didn’t help as this muffled her voice. All the residents really cared about was whether their dinner was on route.
In a short spell of time, I settled in. I learnt that it was only a matter of encouraging simple conversation before residents knew me for a brief moment, then forgot me the next. Most conversation was idle as some could not pronounce a word more complex than a single syllable; others talked in a montage of jumbled words. No matter how the residents communicated, laughter was always involved. Laughter was their saviour, their way of communicating when all else failed.
During my time at the care home, I was warmed by compliments from old ladies. Obviously, they understood how important compliments based on appearance are to a young girl – “what beautiful eyes you’ve got”, “I’d have killed for a figure like yours back in my day”. I felt a sense of achievement when residents showed interest in tasks set by me. I often painted with them while they swallowed my colour advice like pliant children, occasionally asking, “what colour did you want me to do this bit.” Although, again just like children, their attention spans were limited, and their minds soon wandered to other diversions.
I started to enjoy being in their company. I liked telling them stories about my life and listening to much more interesting ones from theirs (or the fragmented parts that they remembered). It was not uncommon for them to concoct imaginary stories. One morning, a sweet lady was convinced she was at a family tea party. Just like children, they imagine themselves in roles they want to occupy one day; they play ‘house’ and act as parents, or play ‘school’ and act as teachers. The residents imagined themselves back in scenarios they once experienced. The following morning, I was told that the Queen was visiting for dinner. So, I soon learnt to take some stories with a pinch of salt.
Some of them made dry sarcastic comments, which made me laugh. They might have been robbed of their rationality, but their wit remained. One lady loved dark humour, the kind we all subtly – if somewhat guiltily – chuckle at. She often smacked the backsides of the male residents and staff, avowing, “Oh you’ve got to have some fun”.
Another wryly answered a male resident’s suggestion of going to the seaside with the laconic phrase, “It’s a bloody long walk”.
And another replied, “I’ll give that a big thought,” when asked to move seat so the tables could be laid for lunch.
One dainty lady recognised her old age when I asked if she’d like to go for a walk around the garden, stating, “I want to, but my legs don’t”.
These were the comments that put on a smile on residents’ and staff’s faces, making those long lock-down days all the more bearable.
Many residents were still caught up in the responsibilities of long-lost quotidian routines, insisting they must go to work or pick up the children. A former dinner lady often insisted upon washing the dishes and wiping down the tables, although she couldn’t stand unassisted. She’d also demand her wages whenever the manager was around. These bodies bore the badges of hard-working lives – a former English teacher carried writers’ calluses; an ex-army officer strode down the corridor in a fashion cultivated by years of intense training.
Some were set on going home each day and spent hours wandering the corridors in search of the way out. It broke my heart not being able to let them go free, back to their familiar lifestyles. One lady proved a gifted guilt-tripper and laid into me with the “I thought we were friends” allegation. She claimed that her mother would be wondering where she was, again reverting to childhood, and made me feel ten times more guilty by saying that her mother was unwell so she might never see her again if I didn’t let her out at that moment. I felt the guilt of a parent who had denied their child sweets, who in turn said something like “Mummy doesn’t love me”. It would take some convincing, but I’d manage to sit her down and force out a giggle.
Conversely, others were happy to sit in their chairs and go with the flow of the environment and people around them, without a fuss or need for attention. It was easy to imagine the kind of people the residents were in their younger days. I felt melancholy considering these people as members of a family, people’s grandparents, parents, friends, and matrimonial partners.
Nevertheless, my time at the care home really opened my eyes to the vital role of humour throughout life. It is true that life is much easier with a sense of humour. As the Maltese psychologist Edward de Bono stated, ‘Humour is by far the most significant activity of the human brain’. While dementia deteriorates memory, thinking, behaviour, and the ability to perform everyday activities, our sense of humour is resistant. Laughter is a constant. It is a gift for mankind, an escape valve for the pressures of life. Unable to see their families or go out in public for months on end, the one thing that connected residents and kept them going was the daily laughs with each other and members of staff.
It goes without saying that the public perception of care homes is poor. Only a quarter of people say that they would consider willingly moving into a care home if they became frail in old age. They are perceived as places of boredom, loneliness, and illness. How often have you heard someone say, ‘I won’t be put in a home’? What people don’t realise is that they are the safest places for those in need, where they receive 24/7 professional care, can bond with others in the same situation, and laugh daily.
The media is eager to give coverage to care homes when safety measures are not met; yet we rarely see the great things care staff do day-to-day to put a smile on residents’ faces. For months during the Covid-19 pandemic, care homes were portrayed as hotspots for the virus, rather than the pockets of laughter – vital, restorative, life-affirming laughter – that they are. The safety and joy that care businesses provided our most vulnerable citizens throughout such turbulent times was side-lined.
Being a care home worker is inevitably a rewarding job and care staff do not get enough recognition or financial reward for what they do each day. Imagine the pressure of going to work every morning or evening knowing you are responsible for caring for somebody’s mother, father, grandparent, auntie, or uncle. Care workers are sometimes the closest thing to family that residents have. If there was one thing I could say to every care worker in times of doubt, it would be to remember that all will be OK as long as humour is involved. If you make one person laugh each day, every day you will be successful.
Eve Davies is from Swansea, South Wales. She is an undergraduate student at Cardiff University studying BA English Literature and Creative Writing. Eve has won several competitions for her creative writing. She frequently contributes to her university’s student magazine, Quench Magazine, particularly to the travel, food, and literature sections. Other work can be found at Empoword Journalism, a platform led by women that unites and empowers journalists worldwide, and Why Can’t We, a campaign that raises awareness of disability sports in the media. She loves all things travel, fitness, food, and books. Find her on Twitter @eveedaviess or Instagram @evedaviess.