I bring up Dad’s small case from the garage, a piece of carry-on luggage, still with its Qantas tag attached.
In their day my parents crisscrossed the globe for business and pleasure. They made friends all over the world. In the 80s Dad was a director of Qantas. One year he and Mum flew on behalf of Qantas to the Boeing factory in Seattle to pick up a new 747-400 plane, ‘The City of Perth’.
Now the case is dusty with disuse. I bang it until the dust rises in a cloud. I pack into it a few pairs of trousers, some shirts and singlets, socks and toiletries. His needs are few these days. My heart aches looking at this case. This is no glamorous trip I’m preparing him for. Next Monday my dad will be checking into a nursing home for a few weeks’ respite. If it’s a success he might stay on.
In one of my dad’s notebooks there is a list of the clothes he used to pack for his overseas trips, all written in his distinctive handwriting with columns alongside for ticks as each item was added to the case. Now he has no idea how to pack or what to take.
The day I made the call to book Dad into the nursing home, I woke in the middle of the night, thinking about my Auntie Helen. When Helen was 20 and her younger brother Harry 18, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and their parents, my grandparents, made her take him to Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital to be committed.
Although Harry’s behaviour was unpredictable and frightening and he needed treatment, and it was her parents’ decision not hers, Helen bore the guilt of her brother’s long incarceration for the rest of her life.
My uncle was given the treatment of the day – insulin coma therapy, where large doses of insulin were administered to induce a coma. My chest tightens when I read in the notes that he was very apprehensive about his treatment but his symptoms did abate. He was released but then the symptoms returned and he lived in institutions for the rest of his life. I remember him as a shambling wreck of a man, disheveled, incoherent and toothless.
Whenever I read of abuse and mistreatment in institutions I think of my uncle and wonder what he put up with. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why I am inundated with thoughts of Harry right now.
I decided to try a temporary placement for my dad in a nursing home because I felt he was becoming a prisoner in his own home. Because of his frailty, incontinence and confusion it’s become difficult to take him out of the house. In fact his only outings now are when I take him to the doctor. He does have the occasional visitor, but mostly he sits alone with his carers. Well-fed and well-cared for, but socially isolated. My hope is that a nursing home will provide activities and company.
I’ll be watching carefully. This is a light airy place, not the closed institution my uncle endured, but still I’m worried about this transition. I hope I’m making the right decision, and that it doesn’t worsen his condition. Time will tell, I guess. Meanwhile, I pack his suitcase with an aching heart.