‘We used to watch sports together,’ says Mr Challoner. ‘She’d always have something to say, some funny little comment. Not now. Not anymore. You’d be lucky to get a sensible word out of her now. She’s unrecognisable, really.’
He pauses, surrendering to another wave of facial tics and grimaces. When they’ve passed, he adds: ‘She stopped being mum some time back.’ And then folds his arms.
Mrs Challoner is ninety-eight. She’s been on our books a few times in the past couple of years. Falls out of bed, falls off the commode or in the wet-room, chest or urine infections to a greater or lesser extent, her legs too swollen and her diuretics increased, her kidneys punished by the diuretics and her electrolytes up the spout. When she’s medically stable she’s not too bad, though. Independently mobile with a zimmer frame (more or less), from the bed to the chair in front of the TV and then back again. She has all the equipment she needs, carers four times a day, community health teams stepping in when required. It’s hard to think of much more that could be done to keep her safely at home. The only option now would be to find her a place in a residential care home.
Mr Challoner is obviously depressed about the whole situation.
‘I’m seventy-five myself,’ he says, wiping his face roughly with his hands, as if he were trying to erase himself from the picture entirely. ‘I shouldn’t have to be dealing with all this.’
When I mention residential care, though, he bridles.
‘Do you know how much that costs?’ he says, folding his arms. ‘You’re looking at a thousand pounds a week. Where am I supposed to get that kind of money?’
I make a sympathetic face, but at the same time I can’t help glancing round the flat – a neat, well-founded apartment just off the park, with a warden, services, allocated parking. I don’t doubt Mrs Challoner owns the property. At a rough calculation, I reckon if she sold up she’d be able to buy herself at least six years of good residential care, which – to be blunt – should see her out. I turn back to Mr Challoner.
‘Well! That’s probably a conversation you should have with one of our social workers. They know all the facts and figures.’
‘So do I,’ he says. ‘A thousand pounds a week.’
‘I suppose the other thing to think about is a live-in carer. But I think in the end that’s actually more expensive, because you’re paying for them on top of all the bills for the flat. A care home would cover everything. But like I say – the social worker’s the person you need to speak to.’
Mr Challoner stares at me, his face jumping and glitching.
‘ Now – there’s just one more thing I need to do before I go and that’s weigh your mum. Have you got any scales I can use?’
‘No. I can’t afford them.’
‘Oh. Not to worry. There’s another way of estimating the BMI by measuring the mid-point of the arm…’
‘What on earth for?’
‘It’s just one of those things we’re supposed to do. To monitor your mum’s weight over time.’
‘She’s ninety-eight. She’s off her food. Have you never had a cat? When they get too old they stop eating. It’s a fact of nature.’
‘You’re probably right. I still need to do it, though. I promise I’ll be quick…’
With the examination finished and the paperwork done, I say goodbye to Mrs Challoner (who despite everything seems pretty content with her lot), and go to shake her son’s hand.
‘I’ll come down with you,’ he says. ‘I’ve got some work to do this afternoon. All this running backwards and forwards…’
In the lift he asks me if I come across this situation a lot. I tell him it’s not uncommon. ‘Variations on a theme,’ I say.
‘I bet!’ he says. ‘That’s definitely what this is – a theme.’ He jangles his car keys and we both watch the floor display.
Doors opening says the recorded voice.
‘Thanks for coming,’ says Mr Challoner, exiting first and then holding the main door open for me.
‘You’re welcome,’ I say. ‘I’ll let our social workers know you’d like to talk to them.’
‘Okay’ he says. ‘See you.’
We separate in the car park, Mr Challoner to his seventeen plate, top of the range, bright yellow sports coupe, me to my tatty blue hatchback.