On Growing Older
She must have been close to ninety in age, if not already past it. Nobody really knew. Like many older Aboriginal people, she was born in the desert or the bush and her birth was aligned to an important event: “big flood knock down all them trees,” “when ground shake and rocks come down that hill” and so on. Anyway, under snow-white, unkempt hair, her face was wizened and gnarled, she had small tufts of white hair on her chin, and her remaining teeth were either yellow, or black like her skin. But her green eyes remained vividly bright, like those of a fox; always watching, always moving, totally alive.
Her family had brought her to the centre when senile dementia had become too much for them and many community members, to deal with. Their problem wasn’t that she’d walk the community, chirping away in pidgin to anyone she passed; they all knew her and would respond, with cheery chatter that seemed to lift everyone involved.
“Ay, Old Lady, where you bin going?”
“Got to find Old Boy,” she’d tell them, and they’d point down the gravel road between the houses, knowing Old Boy had died ten years ago.
“Maybe him bin down with them old men, ay?”
And she’d wave and cackle and cheerily move on to hold the same conversation with the next group of adults she passed.
Even the kids were respectful. They’d run to her if they saw her, give her a quick hug and she’d hug them all in turn.
No, the problem was that she’d started to walk into the bush, still looking for Old Boy, and her family were fearful that with dementia she might not find her way back.
So they brought her to us and we did all we could to allow her to continue her search for Old Boy, and find adults to chat with and kids to hug. A couple of days each week, at lunchtime, a class of kids from the school, always a different one, would come to the centre: what we called “them hugging days”.
But along with the onset of dementia and her family committing her to the centre had come a couple of other problems. One was that she started to gorge on chocolate. When we checked her room after she’d been with us for a couple of months and we had a blocked drain out the back of the centre, we found several blocks of Cadbury chocolates in her locker. And they were neatly stacked beside a carton of cigarettes, an opened, partly used packet and three lighters. Old Girl, according to the family, had never smoked; in fact, she despised it and was always nagging Old Boy and her children not to do it.
“Ay, that bin make you sick way, all them quirlie, Old Boy,” she’d harangue him.
It turns out Betsy, younger than Old Girl, and with all her wits about her, was also capable of the walk to the shop from the centre. The centre manager would let her do it, reasoning it gave her a purpose and some fitness work. But Betsy was the one who was buying the chocolates and cigarettes and smuggling them back into Old Girl’s room.
How did we find out? Evidence came from two sources. The first was that drain around the back of the centre blocked up, so we got Charlie, the plumber, to do some scouring. He came up with about thirty cigarette packets and countless chocolate wrappers. It was then easy to have someone watch surreptitiously to see who the culprit was and for us to check her locker
But the other source was the family. Old Girl had fourteen children, nine of them daughters, and one or two of them would visit each day. They became suspicious when they’d come to visit Old Girl because it would take them a long time to locate her in the centre. It’s a place of ten sleeping units, a dining room and kitchen, a laundry and a recreation room including TV, so it isn’t large. But, whoever from the family found her, they said she always seemed to reek of tobacco smoke.
When the evidence was in and the family were informed of her habits, three of her daughters went to see the manager, complaining angrily about the neglect of Old Girl.
“You mob gotta watch that old womans. She get fat on chocolate and that smoking not bin good for her!!!!”one of the told him angrily.
The manager, after forty years in remote communities and never noted for patience or good interpersonal skills, responded as only he could.
“Shit, woman, Old Girl’s in her nineties, and if she wants to eat chocolate, smoke, or even drink a bottle of gin a day, as long as she isn’t harming anyone else, let her have some fucking fun. She’s well and truly earned it and if it shortens her life, it’ll only be by two days, so don’t get knotted about it.”