Most of my fellow residents are just older than me, some are very deaf, one blind, and many have limited conversation skills. But a couple remind me of my surreal stay four years ago in the Hôpital du Vigan. Especially, my 85-year-old neighbour Monsieur L – the former school directeur, now a proselytiser for a world without money.
Sometimes we can have quite a lucid conversation, provided I can steer him off his obsessional desire to abolish money. You can tell these good moments, as he appears for meals, tall, clearly elegant in the past, though now the clothes (apparently supplied by the clinic) hangi off his gaunt frame, and his hair is combed. On the bad days, his hair stands on end, his expression is one of lost panic, and his trousers (or pyjamas) are only just held up.
Monsieur L is here following some sort of urethra surgery – I have to keep stopping him from giving me details. I think long before this surgery health has been an obsession. He told me that he was born a sickly baby, much fussed over and given special diets, predominantly vegetarian, and never good at sport like his older brother. In fact, he said, he was the odd one out in the family, ‘un original’ . (The Cévennes seems full of these somewhat unusual eccentric originals.). With my total lack of any professional expertise I would say that this childhood has been an important factor in his obsessions with what he eats and medicines, and that perhaps also he is somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum.
M. L sits next to me (when he arrives – invariably late) and so daily I hear him interrogate the kitchen staff on the food we are about to eat and telling them to remove all sauces from his meat – and then cleans his plate. Then the nurse passes with our medications. Again, an intensive interrogation on his various pills and powders, some of which he subsequently loses or drops on the floor. Minutes after the nurse moves onto the next table, he is up, shambling after her, for more interrogations about his medication.
This goes on when he is back in his room (opposite me) – or rather, outside it, looking for someone to explain missing drugs, his need for postage stamps, or whatever the latest thing is to make him anxious. From time to time he has vertigo, which means he has to accompanied to the dining room. And he is convinced that someone takes things from his room. What sorts of things, I ask? Yesterday it was his toothbrush. Then of course there is his conviction there are cockroaches in his room.
At meals he asks me anxiously if he is getting Alzheimer’s. I reply that I don’t think so, but that he is evidently suffering from much anxiety. I’m afraid when he gets worked up and frustrated I apply the same technique I have offered my grandson: count slowly up to ten and smile – the aim being to remove thoughts of what it is that is annoying you and to think positive again.
He has formed a certain attachment to me, so I can never afford to have my door open and often march off on some mysterious errand rather than be waylaid, although I have helped him work his new phone and radio. Yesterday he knocked and entered when I was lying resting on my bed (for me to show him again how to turn off his radio). Minutes later an aide rushed in to ask if I was all right and did I want to get my room changed. (I said I was OK as I only have days left here.
Monsieur L’s latest drama is that while I was face-timing with the family he fell in the corridor outside my door (I found it difficult to concentrate as I could hear the panic of staff stopping him getting up unassisted.) This morning he has an impressive black eye.
Yesterday I also had an encounter with the other lost soul here, Monsieur T. Here is a younger man, a resident on the second floor (those needing more surveillance) and visibly in a confused state. He walked into my room and said he recognised me, he had seen me on the Paris to Evreux train. “Mais non, monsieur,” I said, “vous vous êtes trempé.” I tried to remind him he was on the wrong floor and encouraged him towards the lift. As he tried to enter all the doors between me and the lift, I steered him more firmly towards the lift, and then thankfully heard aides from all directions in a panic, looking for him. I gather that sadly he is normally in some way attached to stop him wandering. I fear his ultimate destination might be somewhere like the psychiatric centre in Sumène.
There are several here with little or no speech, usually following a stroke. This is the case of the blind man, Monsieur P. His wife, who comes all the way from Valleraugue to visit him daily, is definitely not lacking in words; she is a delightful, strong minded Cévenol character whom I got to know last year. Yesterday I bought her a copy of the French version of ‘Divided Loyalties’, the book by Janet Teissier de Cros, describing the wartime in Valleraugue. She deserves it, she is carrying a great burden looking after a totally handicapped husband – not easy in your eighties – and I’m glad to say she was thrilled with the present.