My view of old people’s homes was formed during a long summer working as a food assistant (tool of trade: a trolley) in one in West London as a sixteen year old.
Looking back, I’m horrified at how unsympathetic I was. But day after day of being caught in the middle of a battle between the twin stenches of urine and cabbage, along with months of nightmares in which I was surrounded by nodding dribblers slowly closing in on me – well, let’s just say it put me off a life in a caring profession.
Ageing anxiety probably had something to do with it. The idea that I would be there before I knew it was drummed into me by a sadistic manager who, I later heard, avoided the experience by smoking himself into an early grave.
Grappling with such memories, I strode into the foyer of Greta’s home – and had one of those real-life double-take moments. I had apparently stepped into an art exhibition.
Rows of panels bearing strident abstract oil paintings, all numbered, filled the foyer. Several residents wandered among them but more were gathered around the table in the middle where sherry was on offer.
In the corner sat the artist himself, wearing a Montmartre-style beret and neckerchief, while sprightly old dears batted their eyelids and vied for his attention. He was also a resident and it looked like there was to be a lot of sunshine in his twilight years.
Greta, who is wheelchair-bound, was not among the attendees. I found her upstairs in a coffee room sharing a cake with three other ladies and two carers.
Luckily she remembered me from our one other encounter, a wedding.
“Han är engelsk!” said Greta to her friends.
“I told them you are English,” she said to me.
Then she pointed to the two carers. One of them was pouring some coffee for me and the other was painting one of the ladies’ nails.
“They are foreign! They don’t speak Swedish!”
“Actually I grew up in Sweden, Greta,” one of the young girls patiently replied in Swedish hindered only by her trying to stifle a giggle. “But I was born in Ethiopia.”
“What did she say?” Greta asked me.
“She said she’s Swedish,” I replied.
“She doesn’t look Swedish. I lived in Chicago in 1938. I still wasn’t American.”
This fact was apparently unknown by everyone who had told me that Greta didn’t speak a word of English. But before I could ask her about it, another young carer came into the room and announced that the dance class was to begin.
“I need to go to the toilet,” said Greta.
As Greta was wheeled away the Ethiopian-Swede, whose name was Keleb, turned to me.
“She doesn’t mean any harm. She just doesn’t understand that Sweden has changed.”
We began talking about our home countries. Keleb said she visited her family once a year. She said that caring for old people in Sweden made her feel less guilty about not being able to care for her own grandparents.
“You know, we don’t treat old people like this where I come from,” she said.
“No, nor do we,” I said, as I gazed out of the big window across the fields to Drottningholm Palace.
Sinking into the antique embroidered sofa I remembered the torn plastic armchairs in the place I worked in. Listening to the buzz of the art exhibition downstairs I remembered the endless drone of a radio from the canteen. And looking around at the fine decor, more like a functional hotel than anything, I remembered the grey flaking paint and grey plastic flooring.
“No, I mean that we don’t have homes like this – we take care of our own old people where I come from,” she explained.
Greta reappeared, with a brighter cardigan and a touch of makeup. She was ready to rock and roll.
So I rolled her into a large room where twenty old ladies and three old men stood, or sat in wheelchairs, around a handsome young man who was leading them through a series of gentle dance moves.
“Make space for Greta!” he cried.
“It’s boring here for you – you can go. You must be very busy,” Greta said to me.
She made a beeline for one of the three men, wedging herself in beside him and rocking from side to side more or less in time with the music.
Actually, I didn’t really want to leave. There was something very comforting about watching a group of Swedish ninety year olds dancing. I just hope my kids don’t get any funny ideas about caring for me themselves.