Wednesday 8 February 2017

Bully beef

Sunday nights I spend with Pat the Salt my widowed father-in-law. It's boys' night in, when he doesn't have to eat his greens or do his exercises. Actually, he is the least fussy eater I know and has been trained, like me, to polish his plate - whatever is on it when the meal starts will have gone down the hatch by the end. He loves a Cornish pastie [aggie] or corned beef [corned dog] hash, both of which are hot, tasty and unfussy. Corned beef hash is the most disappointing food I know: onions, spuds, corned beef cooked up with lots of fat - it should be great. But something goes badly wrong when you fry corned beef.  In the morning, I bring the old boy a cup of coffee and a banana to start the day shift. A little later I lash out two slices of toast and his pharmacopeia of meds before the home-help comes to help him get washed and dressed.

The home help HH is one of those salt of the earth women who, in previous generations, would have laid out the dead and made sure Miss Dohickey from down Bladderwrack Lane got a few square meals a week and a read of the newspaper. That happens less and less and The State is expected to fill the hole left by the absence of neighbours. We are allocated 40 minutes twice a day, by the generous Dept Social Welfare, to help with the transition to/from bed. That's just about enough, but it's not the height of efficiency to have home-helps spending almost as much time driving from one client to the next as actually getting down and dirty with the rubber gloves. A different home help came into his life several year ago when Pat's wife was still alive and he had more of his marbles. Back then his wife, getting a little frail round the edges, was allocated 20 minutes for 3 days a week to help with the cleaning. They lived way out in the country and that 20 minutes of engagement required 25 minutes travel time. That home help didn't do windows or clean toilets or bathrooms or move any heavy furniture, so spent her time pushing the hoover round the clean parts of the living room floor while chattering away about the weather and who had died recently. On a physical, practical level that was not very useful or efficient but it was a very important social welfare cog and a bastion against social isolation. 20 minutes was more than the postman could afford for chit-chat on his rounds.

This eking out of resources too thin to make any substantive difference is the bane of democracies. I've ranted about similar effects in the funding of Irish science: if the government wants Ireland to be a world leader in STEM matters (and successive administrations say they do) then they should cherry pick either an elite or a niche area and shovel money into that. That would be politically unacceptable: imagine if the entire 2017 science budget went to Trinity College Dublin to really crack schizophrenia or UCD to cure cystic fibrosis cheaply. Ain't gonna happen, boys: the TD from Limerick would hammer the Minister across the floor of the house. Funding the already successful is the no-brainer option but that tack also has intrinsic issues of funding fondling. I'd be happy to put on my crap-detecting hat and sit in on a brain-storming session one weekend where I was definitely not the smartest chap in the room: batting about ideas for novel blue skies ventures to support . . . now that would be the way to steal a march on the Brits.

Mais revenons nous a nos personnes agées. It turns out that home helps are not allowed to compel their clients to wash. They are there to help but have to respect the elder's autonomy, dignity and self-respect. According to documentation at Home Help Head Office, compelling an old chap to wash his parts is 'bullying'. That strikes me a very unhelpful and emotive designation. My limited experience with dealing with mildly demented old people, children and post-graduate students is that you can get things done if you allow the other person time to absorb the suggestion. That's not possible if you only have 40 minutes to accomplish an inventory of tasks, so it's easier to fall back on an invidious rule from head office and risk letting an itch develop into a weeping sore. Heck, the old buffer may be dead before it gets serious enough to call in the doctor. The HHs are not allowed to have a cup of tea on the job, either. That is just bonkers. In Ireland, having a cup of tea together is a vital social lubricant, and as social inclusion is the tacit purpose of HHs, tea should almost be made compulsory.

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