Daily activities of 1940’s
Daily activities which Alida undertook is something I should ask Tante Bea about, Sophie wrote on a note pad before joining her aunt at the dining table.
‘Reading books. Did Alida read?’ Bea shook her head. ‘I never saw her with anything. I never saw her with knitting or embroidery – the type of thing all of us often did in those days here in Holland. Maybe she did, but whenever she came to the guest room she never had anything with her.’
Sophie’s shoulders stooped. ‘No embroidery? Alida had a spinning wheel for wool in her early life. Mmm… that would have made sense because in those days…’
‘Yes, everyone did that, and we learned sewing even in kindergarten. But I never heard of, or saw, Alida doing anything during her time in the institutions.’
Sophie frowned. ‘It was not much of a life.’
‘Yes, but they couldn’t do anything. You know I used to wonder how they could sit and do nothing, but now I know. I see my sister who is 95 and still very much all there,’ Bea tapped on her forehead with her index finger. ‘But it’s too much to ask her to do something. She’ll sit and she’ll ask if I want a piece of chocolate or something, and then very slowly she’ll give it to me. But it takes time. It takes a lot of time for these people to do simple things.’
‘Like you can almost see her thinking how to get up and walk without falling over?’ Sophie enquired.
‘And when I go to see my sister at the retirement home, I notice that I, too, am sitting a lot, just looking out the window, together with her.’ Bea raised her hands up beside her ears as a person does when faced with a gun. ‘I suppose I need that kind of rest.’
‘I’m not surprised, given that you cycle eight to ten kilometres to the train station, which takes you about 150 kilometres north. Then you take a bus to your sister’s retirement home. It’s a huge expedition for a lady of your age, even though you are used to it.’
Bea nodded reluctantly, ‘I never thought I could do that.’ Her fingers circled forwards as if rolling something away from her. ‘It’s as though you go back to being like a baby. If a baby doesn’t get enough sleep, it becomes sick.’ Her fingers steepled as she paused and leant back. ‘It’s the same for an old person if you don’t get enough rest.’
‘I love it when you remind yourself of this.’ Sophie flashed a cheeky grin. Whenever she asked Bea if she was going to have a nana nap, Bea would dismiss the idea and go outside to do some gardening. But later, while the dinner cooked, she would go into the lounge to find her aunt sound asleep in the chair with a newspaper on her lap. Now, Sophie leaned on the table, and with a measured tone looked sharply at Bea. ‘I guess I was thinking more about when Alida was younger, before she was 65. You say she didn’t have dementia then, but she had been institutionalised with all those old people…’
‘She didn’t have dementia, but she gave the impression …’ Bea pushed down with her thumb, a gesture with which Sophie was familiar in her Dutch family, indicating that somebody was under somebody’s thumb without autonomy in their own life.
Daily activities in institutional care
‘When you were involved with your social work, did you ever go into institutions for younger people who just had mental illness?’ Sophie asked. Bea nodded vigorously at that. ‘And did the staff have these young people doing something?’ Bea shook her head, again strongly, saying, ‘No, no.’ Then she folded her arms.
Sophie’s face was now blank and sad. She was lost for words as she contemplated her grandmother’s life from the time she was about 40 to 65, the age at which people are generally considered to be in the prime of life.
‘There were always one or two exceptions. That is, there were people who were reading or undertaking other activities. But they were the exception. They were always placed in the middle of the room so that the staff could show the other residents what they were doing, with the hope that they would follow these examples. But it was always only a few out of, say, a hundred people.’
Sophie was silent, taking in what Bea had just said. She nodded. ‘Yeh, Yeh… mmm…’ She then rubbed her forehead with her index finger and shook her head in frustration.
After a long silence, Bea continued: ‘But they just didn’t seem to be able to think about doing anything.’
‘Well, if they’re taking a lot of medication that would be understandable.’ Sophie was categorical.
‘So is that good? To take a lot of medication?’
‘No!’ Sophie’s counsellor hat was perched firmly on her head. ‘You can’t process any any trauma or challenge if you are under a fog of drugs.’
Both women stared at the rain, which was hiding the hill less than a kilometre away from view.
‘So I just have to make up what Alida did during the day, with the knowledge gleaned from my experiences in aged care with my parents, and from my experiences back in 1980 when I began working as a physiotherapist’s assistant. Gosh, that was a year before Alida died.’
‘They didn’t do anything. They were too tired. Nothing happened around them.’ Bea informed Sophie who nodded vigorously. ‘So what can you do?’ Bea concluded.
‘They just gave them medicine to sleep.’ Sophie’s outstretched hand formed a fist.
‘I don’t know that it was the case with Alida. I really don’t know.’ Bea shook her head slowly. ‘Whenever I came to see her, Alida was calm.’
‘Was she always awake?’ Sophie enquired.
‘Yes. We were always shown to a special room for guests, which, of course, was to give a good impression of the place.’ Bea smiled wryly.
Sophie folded her arms in resignation. ‘So you never saw her bedroom?’
Bea decisively shook her head. ‘Never.’
‘Yeh, yeh.’ Sophie looked down at the tablecloth.
‘In those days, that was not possible. They wouldn’t give you permission to do so. When someone was ill, they put them… ‘ Bea swept away the air with her hand, ‘in a special room for sick people.’
Sophie she looked away briefly before reconnecting eye contact with her aunt. ‘Yep!’
‘I know I asked her several times what she did, but she never really answered. She did talk a bit about something, but I don’t remember what.’
Sophie squirmed, ‘Did she avoid the subject?’
‘I don’t know that she avoided it, or maybe it didn’t interest her, or perhaps it was just how she often took quite some time to answer. Like when I reminded her of how she played the piano, she waited for a time as she tried to remember.’
‘Did Alida ever play any musical instrument in that institution?’
‘She told me she had played the piano when she was young, that the neighbours let her play theirs, and how she loved playing very much.’
‘That’s just like my mum.. So, if Alida went to a neighbour’s house, she must have lived at home with her mother?’
‘Probably, but I really don’t know, because she didn’t talk about her family. That area of her life was closed to me. Remember, I was really a stranger who happened to have married her son. My husband didn’t like to visit her very much. It was too difficult for him emotionally.’
‘Not coping with emotional difficulties seem to run in the family. Mum was the same, in that she avoided anything that was too strongly emotional for her.’ Sophie sighed heavily. ‘And we know that Marie is the same. Three times over the last thirty years I’ve contacted her to ask if I can visit her in the monastery she lives in, but each time she says she doesn’t want to remember anything about the past.’ Sophie’s eyes were vacant as she rested her chin on the back of her fingers.
Bea continued. ‘Speaking with Alida was a slow process, because it was all so difficult for her to remember things. When she was halfway through a sentence, she would forget what she was going to tell you.’
‘Oh dear.’ Sophie smile was soft as she sighed. ‘Now, of course, you have occupational therapists, but in those days, they didn’t exist…’
Bea nodded long and hard. ‘Yes.’
‘… to organise activities to keep the residents of care homes occupied.’
‘In those days they sometimes let people peel potatoes. In the 1940s when I was a social worker, they sometimes permitted it. But I never found out if Alida was allowed to do it. Perhaps when she was younger in the first institution.’ Bea thudded back in her chair.
‘I wonder if in earlier times they needed the residents to help with the work as there wasn’t so much money to pay for domestic services staff, as often there still isn’t these days. But now they focus on domestic staff as a priority above funding staff to undertake activities or chat with people. So the cycle is changing because there are so many elderly people in care.’ Sophie folded her arms.
‘Back then they only allowed the residents to help with little things where they could do very little damage.’
‘Mmm…’ Sophie frowned.
‘But I’m not sure. I used to visit several homes, so I have to take care not to mix up those with what it was like in your Oma’s place. You know how it is.’
Sophie grimaced, ‘But at least with your work as a social worker you’ve provided an impression of what actually happened in those places in those days. Even though you’d not heard of Alida when you were working in your areas in south Holland. Even though it was a decade earlier than when you first visited Alida, she was still in an institution.’
‘They didn’t do anything in most of those places; all they did was just walk a little bit,’ Bea confirmed.
‘Could they make their own cups of tea or coffee?’
‘No they never did. As far as I know, it’s was the same as it is now.’ Bea wagged her index finger. ‘They had to take care – fire risk and things like that.’
Sophie smiled then her eyes glazed over. ‘Mmm… well, yeah,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘That’s certainly how it is now, because everyone is safety conscious. It was terrible when Dad went into care. He couldn’t even make himself a cup of tea when he wanted to, which was something he often did at home. It was awful.’ Pain was etched in her face as she remembered.
‘I can imagine. They have to take care.’ Bea rearranged her newspaper as Sophie’s face held a cynical smile. ‘Of course, the organisation is responsible; it costs the owners of these institutions a lot of money if something goes wrong. ’
Sophie resigned herself to nods of acknowledgement.
‘They all get their cups of tea at the same time, and the staff see that everything is all right for each person.’
‘That’s right,’ Sophie looked glum. ‘I hoped it would have been better in earlier times, when there was less red tape than what I’ve seen in my experiences; especially as Alida lived in those places for forty-eight years of her life.’
Daily activities chapter photos will be uploaded when a technological problem is resolved, including Alida’s spinning wheel.
More photos are on Alida’s Facebook page