Ted is ninety-five, entirely independent, coping well. Unfortunately for Ted, a bout of high blood pressure, dizziness and intermittent weakness has made life more difficult for him recently. He hasn’t changed his clothes or had a shower in a good many weeks. The doctor has referred him to us for equipment and clinical observations, but so far, despite encouragement, Ted has refused any help with personal care. Today I find out it’s because he’s embarrassed. Most of the carers are female. He’s uncomfortable with that.
‘Come on, Ted. Why don’t I help you with a shower this morning?’
I lay out a change of clothes, and then he takes my arm as we walk along the hallway to the bathroom.
The walls are lined with photographs of family groups, from starch-collared, stiff-backed Edwardians to sprawling, gap-toothed Seventies kids, but generally the apartment feels cowed, cobwebby and quiet, with Ted, like some grumpy, nonagenarian badger, shuffling down his ancient burrow in the half-light.
It turns out, helping Ted take a shower is no easy thing.
At least there’s plenty of room. It’s an old apartment, and the bathroom is positively cavernous, the ceiling so high up no doubt the spiders in the corners have little family portraits of their own amongst the webbing. The bath itself is a grand, claw-footed affair. It would have been impressive fifty years ago; now, two encrusted drip-stains mark the tap end, the enamel is as pock-marked and pitted as an old saucepan, and the grouting is no more than a series of sprouting black lines between the tiles. At some point, Ted has rigged up a wooden frame around the bath, something like a four-poster bed, except the poles are only a quarter inch thick, and they wobble alarmingly when Ted grabs hold of them. We’ve provided a bath board already – a slatted plastic seat that fits across the bath, so he can sit on it when he showers and not get stuck. What complicates things is that the shower is actually a rubber hose with a sprinkler at one end and two rubber cups for each tap at the other. It’s almost impossible to set the temperature, which runs hot or cold suddenly and without any warning, despite elaborate attempts to get it right. Ted insists on using the shower head himself (He’s very clear about that. He only wants me there to help him in and out, to soap his back, and to hold the shower head whilst he takes care of his ‘bits and pieces’). The problem is, every time the water changes temperature, he yelps and holds the sprinkler away from himself, spraying water everywhere. Despite my plastic apron, I’m immediately soaked through, and the floor is flooded.
‘You could really, really do with a proper walk-in shower,’ I tell him, after the water’s finally – mercifully – shut off, and I’ve helped him swing his legs back out of the bath, and he’s sitting side-saddle, towelling himself dry.
‘They would never agree to that,’ he says. ‘I’m only a tenant. They’ll wait till I’ve popped off and then sell up. It’d be a waste, otherwise.’
‘Seems a shame.’
‘Maybe so. But there you are. Can’t be helped. Can you fetch me over that tin?’
There’s an old biscuit tin on a rotten little stand by the sink. I pass it over. He puts it carefully beside him on the corner of the bath and prises off the lid. The tin is filled with talcum powder, and a fluffy white powder puff. He paddles the powder puff in the talc, and begins energetically dabbing it all over himself, under his arms, his neck, over his chest, in his groin, down his legs…. In a matter of seconds he has completely disappeared in a chokingly sweet cloud of powder.
‘There!’ he says, as the talcum blizzard settles and I stop coughing. ‘I feel like a new man.’