Long before I took up nursing, I’d noticed that some old people behaved like children but for years I failed to appreciate the importance of treating them with the dignity of adults.
Max, my 73-year-old friend, was one of nature’s gentlemen. At home in his slippers one evening, he was watching a colour movie and fell asleep. When he awoke, the TV picture was black and white. Not realising the movie had changed, he blamed the set and proceeded to thump it childishly, giving it a kick that bruised his toe. The next day, he laughed with us at his mistake.
No one thought any more about it but three weeks later he was watching a football match at a friend’s house. As the half-time whistle sounded, he jumped up and, to everyone’s amusement, switched off the TV, snapping: ‘What a game! Ninety minutes of rubbish!’
Again he laughed when the friends pointed out there was still 45 minutes to play. From that point, however, it was clear there was something wrong. His actions became more childish and he became rude, abusive and unpredictable in public.
He threw food at waiters and swore freely. There was nothing funny about it. Alzheimer’s disease was diagnosed and he began a long decline.
His wife Jane looked after him for seven years before he was taken into hospital. After he died, she told me about the treatment he’d received.
‘The condition was irreversible,’ she said. ‘He’d lost his memory and could be difficult. But the nurses always treated him as the gentleman he’d been, not the awkward child he sometimes became.
‘They never laughed at him. They allowed him his dignity. The Max I knew would have appreciated that.’
Poignant words. As a student, I’ve never forgotten them.
Lesley McHarg is a second-year nursing student in Scotland