On Reading Alan Bennett’s “A Life Like Other People’s”

I could not for the life of me think of a decent title for this, so I just decided to use the thing that had promoted me to write it in the first place, which was Alan Bennett’s book. I remember wanting to write something about my grandmother before, but not knowing how to do it properly, or even if I should. Reading Alan Bennett’s story brought up so many memories and feelings that I felt I needed to write them down, if only to get them out of my head and onto paper, where they can be studied more objectively.
The way he describes his family and their various illnesses and deaths remind me somehow of my own, particularly when he describes his mother’s final years in a nursing home in Weston-Super-Mare, because it is so similar to the situation my grandma is in now.
She had a stroke about eight, or was it nine years ago? I can’t even remember…but it left her paralysed down one side, which meant she is bedbound and unable to do anything for herself.
I found it oddly reassuring that Alan Bennett also could not imitate the cheerful chatter of the nurses with their…patients? Inmates? My mother can, she seems to automatically assume the caring motherly role when visiting my grandma – or perhaps it is because she has to, whereas I, being her grandchild, do not feel obliged to do so. I feel too embarrassed when speaking to my grandmother, I find it demeaning – more so for me than for her, since she almost certainly does not understand the words.
I have always been rubbish at – and thus reluctant to engage in (or is it the other way round?) that sort of patronising bright-and-breezy tone that people use for children, the elderly and the unwell. But in spite of my dislike of it, as Alan Bennett notes, elderly patients like my grandma do seem to respond to it much better than my own attempts to remain serious and sensible in both tone and content.
That brittle cheerfulness seems so shallow and yet, for me at least, is almost impossible to imitate.
When she first had the stroke, she used to talk quite a bit – mainly nonsense about frogs being in her room or the doctor proposing to her with a pink diamond ring – absurd anecdotes that gave us all something to laugh about and helped to cover up the hopelessness and misery of her situation. Now she does not speak at all and there is no hiding from the tragedy of a bright and busy woman reduced to a inert and speechless shadow of her former self. Gradually her flow of conversation dried up, so that now, when I go and see her – on the rare occasions I remember to – there is simply a desperately uncomfortable silence on my part and an uninterruptible blank stare on hers.
I used to read her poetry, having made her a scrapbook of poems not long after she first went into the home – the list of appropriate gifts for someone incapable of doing anything for themselves naturally being somewhat limited.
The idea was that I, or my mother, or even the nurses, could read them to her, in the hope that it might provide some small scrap of entertainment in an otherwise empty existence.
In addition, the time and effort that I put into making it would, I hoped, make up for my inability to know what to do or say around her. The guilt could be assuaged by the thought that I could at least sit and read to her, something which required very little effort on my part (indeed, I enjoyed reading the poems, partly for it’s own sake and also because I had been told I was good at it). In any case, it prevented the unbearable silence from descending for a while, until it was time to close the book and leave.
So I read to her on several occasions, not knowing if she comprehended the words, or even if she was listening, but feeling that I was at least doing something to show that I cared, that I hadn’t forgotten her entirely.
The last couple of times I have been to visit her, however, she has not been in her room, but seated (slouched would be a better word) in a chair in the communal lounge. New equipment means that they are able to safely transport her from bed to chair with much less hassle, so she can sit out with the other patients/inmates and not remain isolated in her room for the entire day.
The thought of having to sit there and read in front of not only all the other senile residents but also any nurses who might be in attendance and thus witness my total inadequacy at providing any sort of meaningful conversation means that I no longer read her poetry, or in fact say anything to her at all.
When I do visit, after seeing she is not in her room, I walk down to the lounge, check that she is sitting in one of the chairs positioned in a careful semicircle around the television, with its mind-numbingly awful daytime TV blaring out, and then quietly leave.

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6 Responses to On Reading Alan Bennett’s “A Life Like Other People’s”

  1. I really this piece. It made me happy & sad at the same time, it reminded me of my grandmother, when she was the woman I grew up with & the woman she became the last several years of her life. I want you to know I know from experience what you have written about & what you are going thru. Hold on to the good memories. I am sorry about your grandmother.

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Thank you Francine – I’m glad this gave you some happy memories along with the sad ones. It seems as though quite a few people have experienced something similar and also found it difficult, so it is nice to know that I am not the only one who struggles to deal with it xx

  2. My grandma is 95 and in the same situation. I know exactly what you mean about the communal rooms and the crappy TV. My gram is at least in the situation where she can still decide what she wants so she does not use these rooms. We can visit her in peace and I’m so sorry that that option was taken away from you.

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Thank you v much for commenting Spring. I’m glad to hear that your grandma still has a choice in what she wants to do. I know that the staff are very good at looking after the residents and I don’t resent them in any way, but as you said, it is so much better to be able to visit someone in peace.

  3. Okay, you’re getting a proper comment now.
    I know exactly what you’re talking about. My grandma’s 91 (92?). Usually her mind’s still alright, she just can’t hear very well anymore and it’s been like that for a long time. Sometimes I think that’s not bad at all because she could never really follow any TV programs, so she was forced to read a lot and still does. Recently her leg’s gotten really bad though and sometimes the pain is so bad that she needs to be on a high dose of painkillers and those make her very confused.
    I’m really bad at talking to people anyway. I’m just incapable to lead a conversation and I certainly can’t just chatter away cheerfully without getting much of a response. Yeah, my mum can do it, my dad to an extent. I’m always SO glad when she’s well enough to play board games.
    And yes, the communal area: I mostly go visit her for tea (well, coffee and cake that is), so I have to sit there with her and everyone else. I simply can’t talk when I know everyone’s listening and it doesn’t help that I would basically have to shout at her if I wanted her to understand anything. So mostly it’s just stirring my coffee in awkward silence.
    Sometimes, when I think about it, I’m really afraid of what will happen if my parents get like that.

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Andrea, thank you very much for your comment. I’m sure that even if you don’t manage to say very much, the mere fact that you have been in to visit her will mean a lot. I’m also afraid of it happening to my mum. Really do hope they find a way of making nursing homes happier places to be, both for residents and for visitors.

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