I drove over to Newport yesterday, paying the usual Severn Bridge toll - now £6.40 - to enter Wales. That's the Welcome in the Hillside.
I was visiting P---, my elderly aunt. I found her pleased to see me, but surprised, because she thought I'd be visiting her in the following week! It was a mix-up that didn't really matter, and nobody's big mistake. She ought perhaps to have written my visit date down while actually speaking to me on the phone two weeks previously, but it was no crime not to, nor within half an hour to forget exactly what I'd carefully said to her. And I should perhaps have phoned her a couple of days before arrival, to confirm things, but again the omission was not a great fault in itself.
On the whole, however, I thought the onus had mostly been on me to make sure that the date and time of my visit were clear. P--- was after all aged ninety-two, and beginning to get a little vague. I should have reminded her.
Unfortunately my aunt does not possess a mobile phone, and doesn't do texts. So we can't send a few quick and timely words of enquiry to each other. She only makes voice calls - the communication method of a past era. Me, I loathe voice calls. They always catch me at an awkward moment. Often I can't give an answer without a bit of thought. And I don't like chatting on the phone. This is why I naturally opt for emailing or texting, which is much more efficient for exchanging information and settling on a definite plan.
A particularly nice thing about texting is that you can (for instance) send a quick text to say that you got home safely. It seems much appreciated. My aunt would find the same comfort in receiving such messages if she ever adopted texting. But she won't. Much as my Mum, the same age as my aunt, thought that so much was 'not for her'. Dad embraced his computer, but I don't think Mum ever went near it. It was 'not for her'. Similarly, my aunt would politely say 'thank you' if you ever bought her a tablet to access the Internet - and then leave the thing in its box. She'd probably do the same if you set her up with a mobile phone, especially if it had a touchscreen. It just wouldn't be for her.
One of the things my aunt and I did was to go and see M---, another aunt of mine, at her care home in Rogerstone. P--- had given me all kinds of news about M--- for a long time, but I hadn't actually seen her in person for many years. She did know about my transition, and had told P--- that she'd be pleased to see me if we called by. This said, I didn't have high expectations. And sure enough, she looked at me blankly when P--- introduced me, even though P--- said 'This is J---', using my old name. I suppose I simply seemed too unfamiliar. She must have looked and listened for J---, but saw and heard only a stranger who might have been one of P---'s grown-up nieces. It was sad in a way, but we had never been especially close, and so I was in no way put out. I found a seat, and waited for P--- and M--- to finish their chat.
We'd found M--- comfortably ensconced in one of the care home's lounges, and there were a dozen or so other elderly ladies close by, all watching a quiz show on the big TV screen. The constant background noise of the TV would have irritated me, but everyone seemed interested in the show. It wasn't the only thing to do, but it was the easiest option and they all took it. Some watched TV tucked up in blankets for extra warmth. One or two walked about. It was surprising how similar these ladies were. They all had identical perms, the same kind of white hair, much the same clothes and glasses, and much the same expression on their faces. M--- was no exception.
They were obviously in a well-appointed, caring environment, warm and well looked after; but I found it all rather disturbing and I was glad to go. Every resident had surrendered their independence. And with it, some of their individuality. Looking at them while I waited, I clearly saw the difference in demeanour between P---, who still lived in her own home and seemed relatively alert; and M---, who had become a completely passive care home resident. They were equally frail. But P--- had a real life to cope with and think about, and it seemed to stiffen her posture. No doubt she felt very much alone at times, and vulnerable, and she relied on her family for shopping and any travel, but otherwise P--- had the complete management of her affairs. M--- had company, security, and no worries because everything was arranged for her. But she had no important choices left. While the money lasted, she was paying £600 a week to be a pampered prisoner.
P--- didn't want this kind of life. And most certainly I did not. And yet, how could it be avoided? Was I really future-proofed? Supposing one day - hopefully at least twenty years hence - some bad illness, or a stroke, or dementia, reduced me to such feebleness that a care home was the only viable option? Perhaps, if struck down so badly, it would not seem awful to sit all day in a comfortable chair, watching a TV show. I would be past caring about it.
I didn't get to see it, but presumably M--- had a nice room, with the pick of furniture and books and personal possessions from her own house. That would be something. But I can't help remembering N---, an aunt of my former partner M---, who died in a home in Hove in 1995. She was almost one hundred, blind and nearly deaf. And all she had at the end was a miscellany of tatty things in a lot of plastic bags. Another kind of prisoner. When the money runs out, you end up in a dingy room with only pain and confusion for company.