To enter the lounge in a care home will likely face you with a sort of identity parade of folk sat around in their armchairs, some sleeping, others reading or watching the tv. All are individuals and faces are etched with the lines of many years, but different experience, relationships and history. One of the things I enjoy about visiting is that I get to meet interesting people. Behind the seemingly blank stare into nowhere particular there is a personality with a past full of work, family, holidays, homes, hobbies, hopes and dreams, which is often willingly shared.
But this is an institution and the simple requirements of organisation mean that times for getting up, mealtimes, going to bed etc. are all fixed, punctuated by the medicine round and perhaps the occasional visit or activity. It is easy for individuality to be set aside as an inconvenience.
This is not just a feature of care homes. It begins in the maternity hospital where whole wards of new-borns and their mums have their days governed by the institution, with individuality marked out with wrist-bands. At school it becomes the class, the house, the year group and lots of developing individuals are herded through a structured day. When we are at work we are again part of an institution or company or organisation with set ways of doing things, yet it is our individual skills and gifts that we bring to it.
In the care home setting I am constantly impressed by the personal attention that is offered by staff, but also aware of the pressures that the institution places on all. The staff, working shifts, will return home to families and responsibilities. They too are individuals.
Within any institution we all cry out ‘I am me’ and it is important to recognise it in others.
Images: clay sculptures and ‘Ruth’ by Jan Gay – Sustaining the Person Within Project
Jan Gay in an introduction to her work:
A common sight in residential homes is a line of figures around the edge of the room. They are often asleep. Very occasionally somebody may be reading a paper or book, but there is rarely any communication. The day is interrupted by mealtimes and care. My figures represent this scene and are in sharp contrast to the colour and vitality of my portraits of residents, involved in activities. In many of the paintings there is an unfinished feel because their stories are still being written, confirming the energy and promise of the future … unlike those on the shelf, waiting.