… had nothing to do with Jayne Mansfield or lobsters, but it was pretty awful.
For a couple of years I worked from time to time as a carer, which involved living in with elderly, very rich people who needed a certain amount of help and companionship, like cooking and driving, looking after their animals, taking them on visits and generally keeping them happy and comfortable. It was an enjoyable way to earn some money, staying in beautiful properties, meeting interesting people and eating well. A stay would last from one to three weeks, when another carer would take over. The majority of the people were absolutely charming, and it was a pleasure to know them. But there was one woman who was so terrible that the agency I was with couldn’t find anybody to go to her. Nobody who had ever been there would go back. But I didn’t know that when they sent me.
When I arrived the outgoing carer, a 20-year-old South African girl who looked haggard, grabbed one of my bags and rushed me into the house and up the stairs, whispering “”Welcome to Hell.” She’d been there a fortnight, because the agency hadn’t been able to find anybody to take over from her until I turned up. 🙂 “Thank God you’re here. If I wasn’t out of here today, I swear I’d have either killed myself, or her.”
Well, I thought, she’s very young. The woman can’t be as bad as that.
How wrong I was.
When I left after 10 days, clinging to the remnants of my sanity, the agency asked me to write a report on exactly what it was like caring for Mrs X, as we shall call her. They had scheduled a meeting with her family (who were the most delightful people you could hope to meet) to discuss how to deal with the woman in view of the fact that they were unable to supply any future staff.
This is an abbreviated version of the report, which I came upon while doing some digital housekeeping last night.
Mrs X is plainly unwell mentally, but she tells me she is not taking her medication because it “creeps up her legs and into her head and gives her hallucinations.” She sees her brain in front of her in red and green. She is also the rudest and most spiteful woman I have ever come across, and her day is spent by responding to every attempt at conversation with a bitingly unpleasant riposte, while condemning silence as “sullen insolence.”
She starts each day with a cup of tea in bed at 7.30 precisely. One morning I was one minute late and met her half-way down the stairs coming to see if I’d forgotten about her. She sits in her double bed, and the carer hands her a teacup, making certain that the handle of the cup is in precisely the right position. The carer must then climb onto the bed and sit next to her, keeping their legs perfectly parallel and motionless until she decides to get up – that can be as late as 9.15. During this time she is often a bit weepy, needing to hold hands. It’s best to murmur unintelligibly sympathetic little noises while she talks, because if she can’t identify what they mean, she does not know how to respond to them. Any other response will trigger a sarcastic remark.
Never make the mistake of asking her if you should run a bath. She finds this insulting, and says she never takes a bath, believing it to be weakening and bad for the skin. All that soap, and rubbing with flannels and towels will give a person wrinkles; and to be fair, despite being nearly 80 she has perfect and almost unlined skin. Her only concession to hygiene is with regard to her still-black hair. The carer must take her a glass of warm water (it’s a grubby glass, but don’t wash it, she likes it that way), into which she dips a comb that she runs through her hair. She tells me she hasn’t bathed or washed her hair for years; again to her credit, she doesn’t smell.
While she gets up and dresses herself, the carer prepares breakfast. The toast must not be put in the toaster until she comes into the room, but it must be ready to go on her plate immediately. Make sure there’s no butter on the rim of the butter dish, and there is a large spoon for the marmalade. Never put a teaspoon in the marmalade. It’s the worst possible thing. Try to eat your breakfast at just the right pace. Too slow, it’s obviously not good enough for you, perhaps you’d like to have caterers come in and prepare it for you; too quickly and you eat like a starving horse and she doesn’t know how much longer she’ll be able to afford to keep you.
The day proper begins.
From now on she will expect her carer to know instinctively what she wants, and when. But if the carer suggests anything, or tries to do something, like dusting, or offering a cup of coffee, or going to buy the newspaper, she will stare at them as if they are mad, and tell them that if she wants something, she’ll tell them. Any attempt to use initiative is rudely slapped down. Then as you wait obediently to know what she wants next, she’ll say things like: “Oh, I see you couldn’t be bothered to make me a coffee, well, I’ll make it for myself.”
Everything you cook will be monitored and criticised. She watches you the way a hawk watches a field mouse, waiting for the best moment to strike. However you cut the vegetables will be wrong. However you cook anything will be wrong. She’ll say the food is awful. Very rarely will she say she enjoys it (although she eats it all, there’s nothing wrong with her appetite). She will order a particular dish for lunch, and cross-examine you as to how you will prepare it, shrieking with glee if you forget to mention one particular ingredient. She expects you to know how to cook anything and everything without needing a recipe. She denies having a cookery book in the house, but there is a comprehensive one in the kitchen, hidden on top of the fridge/freezer. She doesn’t know about this, so you have to wait for her to take a phone call, or go to the lavatory, then climb onto a stool and quickly jot down the recipe before she comes back.
She never misses an opportunity to say something unpleasant. Her great satisfaction seems to be in finding something to complain about. She will talk to you as if you are the lowest order of domestic servant. She refers to her carers as “those awful creatures” who break all her things, because they don’t care, and wave their hands about all the time. It’s the worst possible thing. Never wave your hands about when you talk, in fact don’t wave them about at all, or even move them if you can help it.
After lunch, another ordeal trying to find the correct eating pace, she watches Neighbours, and then she will want to be read to from the newspaper. While you’re reading to her, she won’t give any indication of whether or not she’s listening. If you ask whether she wants you to continue, she’ll reply “Of course I want you to continue, I haven’t told you to stop.” If you don’t stop, she’ll suddenly say “Do we have to listen to very much more of this?” You can’t make her happy unless you can give her an opportunity to be rude. She likes doing the simple crossword; you read out the clues to her. Don’t answer too many yourself, but be ready to when she snaps “You’re being lazy, you do one now.”
She likes to have the TV programme read out to her in the following format: First the channel, then the start and finish time of each programme right up until 11.00 pm. Then move on to the next channel. Be ready to instantly find the details of a programme you mentioned several minutes earlier.
If you try to have any time to yourself, she’ll turn on the “poor frightened me” act to try to stop you leaving her alone. You mustn’t move your feet, move in the chair, wear shoes that have rough soles because they will damage the carpet. Never turn on the extractor fan in the kitchen because the flub-flub-flub noise makes her eyes go funny. It’s the worst possible thing.
Never try to take anything out of her hand. Never stand near her when she’s doing something, she thinks you are watching her. Don’t make any sudden movements. Don’t move quickly, but hurry up all the time. Never say “I thought …” She’ll reply “You think too much, and always the wrong thoughts.”
DON’T DO ANYTHING ON YOUR OWN INITIATIVE – SHE HATES IT.
She wants to tell you how useless you are all the time. She has told me I’m a very expensive guest, take a lot of looking after, and has called me “one of those xxx creatures,” asked if my husband is mentally deficient, and whether there’s any insanity in my family. There wasn’t until I went there, but now I’m not sure!
If you are asked to drive her, she will insist on reversing the car because you won’t be capable of doing it. You must drive very, very, very slowly, not more than 30 mph, and on the very narrow roads this causes long tailbacks of angry traffic. She gasps and shouts all the time and it’s really quite dangerous because she tries to distract you from the road. Like the extractor fan, the hedges go flub-flub-flub, so slow down even more when passing them. She’ll give you directions miles ahead, and expect you to remember them. When you get hopelessly lost, she crows triumphantly and says you should have listened to her. She’ll give you no help at all in finding where you need to go.
Wherever you drive her, after you have parked the car she will insist on re-parking “properly” herself.
Her eyesight problem seems to be very selective. While she claims she can’t do anything for herself, she can spot a crumb at 50 ft, notice a ladder in my tights, watch television and of course spot butter on the rim of the dish, a particular obsession of hers. She’s physically very fit, extremely well-informed. and no fool. Nothing wrong with her hearing, either. She spends most of the day watching you to see what she can complain about, but after dinner if you settle down to watch TV she’ll usually be pleasant. Not always, mind, but more often than not, because she wants you to stay downstairs with her until midnight. She sees no reason for you to dash off to bed, because you haven’t done anything all day so you can’t be tired.
The minute you sit down, she’ll ask you to get up and find something. Go out of the room, she’ll call you back. Go upstairs, she’ll call you down. Go downstairs, she’ll call you up. When you go to the lavatory she stands outside the door timing you, and keeps a record of how many visits you make each day, commenting that you should see a doctor because there is something plainly very wrong with your system. When you have a bath, she will also time you, banging on the door if you take longer than 10 minutes and warning you that you’ll ruin your skin.
To have any time to yourself, you have to really put your foot down, because otherwise you’ll be totally exhausted at the end of each day. When I finally was able, after much negotiation, to go to my room at 9.00 pm after 14 ½ hours non-stop, pleading the need for sleep if I was to be up by 7.00 am, she crept up the stairs to check if the light was on in my room, then banged on the door saying that I obviously wasn’t so tired after all. After the first time that happened, I used to stuff underwear all round the edges of the door, and place pillows at the bottom so that the cracks of light were not visible, so that I could read for an hour or so in peace.
She plays with the central heating control, so the house can be freezing or boiling. She turned it down to 15 for two days, which is what she said she was told to do. The radiators were stone cold. She went back to the control switch, and turned it off and on. When I asked her if she’d adjusted it, she denied it, but when I looked it was back up to 20.
I couldn’t tell where the madness ends and the sheer unpleasantness begins, but a week is about all I think anybody can be expected to stay with her. I had nightmares, panic attacks and migraines and sweats, and in flagrant breach of the rules, I drank a miniature of Scotch every night!