Outings give institutionalised people hope – Ch 13

Outings create excitement

‘Outings might be very wet today,’ Sophie announced to Bea as she glanced out of the kitchen window.

‘Yes. It’s coffee time,’ Bea sang. ‘Laaah lele laah. I’ve been busy running up and down the stairs, collating and sorting business paperwork. What are you going to do on such a drab day?’

Sophie smiled, ‘I’m glad it’s raining because it gives me an excuse to continue with Alida’s story.’ She looked expectantly at her aunt.

‘Well, I have nothing better to do, so of course.’ As it began to gurgle, Bea removed her tiny coffee percolator from the gas stove, and they adjourned to the dining table.

‘What was Oma Alida really like?’

‘The most outstanding thing about her was the way she behaved like a lady. The nuns in the care home cut her hair with a straight fringe just above the eyebrows like everyone else’s, with the length just above the collar, and only gave her simple, practical clothing to wear. But even though she didn’t get to dress like a lady, she always behaved like one.’

Outings were rare in Alida’s life here at 84-years-old.

‘Of course, given that you and Tante Emmanuelle were unable to drive a car, it would have been difficult to take her on outings to shop or enjoy anything.’

‘Yes. When my husband drove us all for family outings, we had five children in the car. I had the smallest on my lap, so we still couldn’t take Alida out. Later, when I went to see her alone, I had a long walk from the train, and so did Emmanuelle and her husband because he, too, never had a car.’

‘So nobody ever took her out?’

‘Only Ans. She always had a car and was used to driving in the countries where she lived.’

‘Yes. I heard that Tante Ans went from Australia to Holland a number of times over the years.’

Bea smiled, ‘I remember, the nuns had a cupboard with sweets, teddy bears and those kinds of things for the residents to buy. Alida saved her pension money and was always buying presents to give to my five children. I am not sure who got the teddy bear – I suppose my son, being the youngest – but I don’t remember that much detail. On every visit we took home what Alida bought. She bought things for Emmanuelle’s four children too. They went to see her quite often. Alida’s government pension was enough to provide spending money. She even tried to buy me presents, but I didn’t let her do this.’ Bea’s face suddenly lit up as she remembered something. ‘Only the other day, I looked in a drawer and I’m not saying this because we are talking about Alida, but I really thought that maybe you would like one of the three hankies I bought with money Alida gave me.’

‘Are you sure?’ Tears welled in Sophie’s eyes.

‘Whenever I open the drawer and see them, I think of Alida. They won’t mean much to my children, but I thought maybe you would like one because it comes from your Oma, whom you never saw but share some history with, and because you have a lot of interest in her.’

Hankies gifted to Sophie by Bea

‘That would be really lovely. Thank you.’ Sophie’s face radiated love for her caring, thoughtful, aunt.

‘They are not very expensive, but they are a special kind of design and they remind me of her.’

‘Thank you so much. I use one of the two hankies you gave me three years ago, but have the other still wrapped in its packet.’ Sophie’s voice quivered. ‘I always think of you when I see them in my drawer. You know me well.’

‘My pleasure.’ Bea bowed her head graciously.

‘So, could you go on walks together with Oma?’

‘Not really. There was a simple garden there, but nothing special or large. When my two eldest children began to learn the violin, they played for her. She loved that, but she found it too difficult to talk with young people after being in an institution for at least thirty years – it was such a long time.’

Outings can be simple

During an afternoon break in the rain Sophie went picking blackberries in an abandoned orchard on a nearby hill. It was peaceful there, the only sounds being the wind, birds chirping and far overhead the soft droning of aeroplanes. It was a truly meditative experience, where she reviewed her life and some of the conversations with her aunt. Occasionally inspirations about her writing occurred in the peace amongst the lush vegetation and birdlife.

When she returned home and had settled on the sofa opposite her aunt, ‘Tante Bea, may I ask you another question that I suddenly thought of in the orchard?’

Bea removed her glasses and folded her arms on her newspaper. ‘Yes, of course.’

‘I’ve realised that we’ve not discussed what Alida did during the day for all those forty-eight years.’

‘I don’t know. She never talked about what she did. She always came down a very long corridor, walking slowly. She was never excited or showed any emotion and was always very calm and extremely pleasant to be with.’

‘Did you ever ask her?’

‘When I tried to do so she would just talk about something else, but not answer my question.’

‘So she avoided the subject?’

‘Yes, exactly. I think like most people in institutions, she just sat there, not talking, eventually eating a meal, or having something to drink with cake.’

‘So it was like the nursing home where my dad was and now Mum is? Only in Australia these days they have outings and activities organised by occupational therapists for those who want to engage in them.’

Bea folded her arms, her face etched with frown lines.  ‘But in those days, there was nothing like that. Just somebody who gave them their food and kept an eye on things, occasionally saying hello or taking somebody who needed help to the toilet.’

‘Back in 1981 when I started working as a physiotherapy assistant in a nursing home with all the different levels of care, they were just beginning to introduce occupational therapy activities,’ Sophie’s eyes widened. ‘Goodness! That was the year that Alida died.’

‘When they closed down Alida’s first care home in Den Bosch, they moved her to Vucht. The only thing that was good about the second place was that it was in a very big park, so there was a lot of space to walk in a beautiful area. There was a nice garden in Den Bosch too, but it was much smaller.’

Outside, a flock of birds called to each other as they passed calling and the neighbour’s pre-school boys laughed as they played in the garden.

‘Did you visit Den Bosch much?’

‘Yes, that’s where she was for most of the time. When she moved, only a few of the friends that she may have made came with her.’

‘You mentioned that it was only a short time. Was it less than ten years?’

‘It was probably only about a year that she was in Vucht, the home with the beautiful park.’

‘Mmm… she would have been 85-years-old then, so she wouldn’t really have been able to walk very far.’ Sophie’s shoulders slumped.

‘Unfortunately, that was the case. I know from my work as a social worker in the 1940s and 1950s that people in those institutions just sat around all day, so they would soon become very unfit.’ Bea gazed out on her beautiful flowering garden. ‘Occasionally, a nurse would come and say a few words, but that’s about all.’

Sophie removed her glasses. ‘When Alida first went to Den Bosch, she was aged 40, actually only 39 years old. We expect elderly people to rest a lot, but not people in the prime of their life.’ Sophie heaved a sigh, ‘What did they do there?’

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This chapter was released on Alida’s 125th birthday, celebrated by her Australian grand-daughters on Mother’s Day 12 May 2019 🙂