During a summer many years ago, I found myself working under the job description of ‘Events Organiser (Elderly Persons). This was a very grand title for one of a handful of people who went round the lunch clubs held at different homes for the elderly. This was long before any swingeing governmental cuts; in the days when most homes had at least one large lounge where the residents and day centre attendees could cluster and hopefully be entertained. The lounge would inevitably smell of disinfectant and the stale urine that lingered in the crevices of the institutional high-backed vinyl-covered chairs regimented in a semi-circle. Faded silk flower displays cluttered the surfaces in a failed attempt to cheer up the pale green or blue painted walls, dark spill-proof carpets and curtains that were never closed unless there was a funeral.
There was always a gentle rivalry between the residents and those who were brought to the home in the minibus from their own homes. Residents tended to be frail and confused whereas the day centre people were judged to be more self-caring but in many cases they were just hanging on to independence by their fingertips. The day centres gave them the opportunity to go somewhere warm where they were guaranteed morning and afternoon coffee and biscuits, as well as a hot lunch and some form of ‘entertainment’. I use that word very loosely.
I spent most of my time in the early part of that summer doing the washing up. There was always a great deal of it and it was the ideal opportunity to escape from the scariness of old age and confusion. No matter how hard I tried, I always left someone out on the coffee round, or failed to order enough lunches. This kind of catastrophe resulted in a hurried reloading of plates by the kindly but gently disapproving volunteers who had been helping out at lunch clubs for years and were vaguely condescending to us paid employees.
As the summer wore on, I found myself participating and then eventually organising the activities for groups of twenty to thirty elderly people who weren’t always sure where they were or why. We had quizzes and memory games, local entertainers would come with a Bontempi organ, small amplifier and a microphone to sing wartime songs and send the odd hearing aid haywire . There would be outings in the minibus; to garden centres, museums and sometimes the beach. Long trips entailed the organisation of lunch somewhere, usually in a pub which could be guaranteed not to lose patience with our haphazard ordering and the probability that at least half of our charges would have forgotten what they had ordered beforehand anyway.
We couldn’t take everyone on these trips and it was always sad to see the faces of those left behind peering out from behind the ever-open curtains like disappointed children.
The mainstay of the lunch club entertainment was Bingo. Every home had a box containing photocopied Bingo blanks, half-sized ball pens that had been pilfered from Argos or Littlewoods, a set of numbered balls in a black cloth bag, and the number chart and counters so that the caller could blank off the numbered ball once it had been called.
Some homes were more sophisticated; they had invested in proper Bingo (or Lotto) sets with a see-through circular ball into which the numbered balls were loaded and dispensed randomly, defeating any allegations of cheating. I always got stuck with the black cloth bag.
The Bingo prizes were donated by the lunch club attendees and had to be closely vetted. I remember one packet of coconut mallow biscuits that turned up at nearly every lunch club, donated by the person who won it last time. The mallow had dried out, the biscuits were soft and the coconut had gathered in a pile at the bottom of the cellophane packet. The sell-by date had been worn off by the many pairs of old, dry hands that had clutched the packet triumphantly. I took an executive decision one day and binned them, together with out of date tins of baked beans, tomato soup and snails – probably an unwanted present from someone’s daughter-in-law after a family trip to France.
I replaced them with nicer, newer food from my own larder and was gently but firmly reprimanded by one of the older volunteers who felt that I shouldn’t be wasting my money. I was never quite sure why this lady volunteered. She was always the first to snatch away half-drunk cups of coffee, half-eaten lunch plates and was hustling the day centre attendees into their coats long before the bus had arrived. Every activity was accompanied by a long-suffering sigh and she spent even more time washing up than I did.
I will never forget the first time I was asked to do the Bingo. I though it would be easy. After all, I had spent many sessions observing and helping (badly) to cross off numbers once they were called.
Part of the job was remembering the names for the numbers; two fat ladies, Kelly’s eye, key to the door and my nemesis, clicketty-click. I was so bad at remembering the names that one of the old ladies very kindly wrote them down for me but her writing was so tiny and cramped that the stress of pulling the balls out of the bag rendered my list unreadable.
It seemed that whenever I did the Bingo there were no early winners, just a cluster of elderly people fighting over tins and biscuits at the very end. It got to the point where my ineptitude was so legendary that they would ask for me to do the Bingo just so they could have a good laugh. To this day I don’t know what I was doing wrong but Bingo is a game I avoid at all costs. I tremble at the sight of halls full of people with their multiple cards and brightly coloured dabbers for marking off the numbers. Far more efficient than our badly photocopied blanks and tiny pens.
For my last day at the lunch clubs, before moving on to bigger and more challenging things, I was allowed to organise a day trip, and to bring my husband along – such a very supportive man. I arranged for us all to have lunch in a pub that we knew would be particularly sympathetic, was wheelchair accessible, had disabled toilet facilities ( a rarity in those days) and wasn’t far from our afternoon excursion to the beach at Mudeford.
Lunch went off with only one wrong order – and that was the bus driver. We loaded our satiated charges back onto the bus and headed for the sea. It was sunny but one of those pleasantly balmy afternoons where you can happily sit for a while and bask without burning.
There were no mishaps at the beach either; Dame Fortune smiled on me that day but was probably smiling at the sight of two dozen elderly people paddling in the sea or sitting in the wheelchairs on the sea wall clutching their 99 ice creams in the sunshine.
It was truly a grand day out.