Late Possibilities

Mark Fletcher’s eye-catching title signals the note of defiance that links this collection of stories about life in a nursing home. It’s a subject that wonderfully concentrates the mind. We are an ageing population, as many of us need no reminding, living longer, and for many nursing-home residents, only partly living. Fletcher’s stories raise the question of what kind of agency old people can find, faced with physical deterioration and loss of independence, especially in the often dehumanising conditions of institutional care. Other, more existential questions gather momentum and become explicit in a letter from one Arthur to his pen-pal in Japan: “What are you leaving behind?” “What would you have done differently, knowing what you now know?” “What do you think happens next?”

In the opening story, residents are exercising their rights of assembly and protest. We hear them before we see them: “Tap tap bang, tap tap bang”. Their question for Jill, the new Customer Services Manager, is “Do you see us?” So there seems to be an unacknowledged irony, as well as pathos, in this non-verbal introduction. Yet they are soon eloquent. Their anger is focused on the approaching event known as “sports day”—“the walking frame dash, the wheelchair roll, the walking stick throw. And yes, the bedpan relay.” They reject this demeaning and infantilising focus on their disabilities and want to affirm instead their talents and interests, their individuality: “I sing”, “I knit”, “I record books for the blind people here”. Shirley proclaims an ambition to develop her penchant for stand-up comedy, and is later seen trying some none-too-subtle routines on her captive audience. Jill, wiping a tear from her eye, is encouraged to revise her KPIs: “I do see you.”

Fletcher is a playwright, and his relish for the staged moment can sometimes run the risk of sounding tendentious. But the black humour of the sporting contest does make its point.

His keen ear for dialogue allows voices to unfold, revealing or concealing narratives, as the residents are seen and heard as they really are. Communication, and the loss of it, is a sustained theme. Confinement imposes isolation, and enforced communal life brings no solace to those who have valued their independence and their privacy. New relationships, however, are formed, persist, even flourish, in these uncongenial circumstances, running the whole gamut from friendship to romance to sexual connection and love. “Dad, you’re not gay” is the outraged cry of Alice when spies report that her father Frank has been seen holding the hand of Douglas. “My life is my life as long as I have my wits about me,” is his patient reply. After her initial outrage, Alice’s acceptance in “a gentle, authentic smile” comes a shade too easily perhaps. On surer ground is Alexander’s clinging to his correct name and his dignity: “I want to have a shower when I want, without being watched … I can take care of myself.” “Then why are you here?” is the chirpy reply of the logical but not unkind nurse Bec. His admission, “I have nowhere else to go,” is perhaps the saddest line in the book. He, too, however, is drawn into community when, encouraged to relate his life story, he admits his nightly habit of listening to “Blowin’ in the Wind”, the Bob Dylan song he enjoyed with his wife of forty-seven years. His three table-mates begin to join him in the ritual, and this is the song played as his coffin is carried out two years later.

A hidden narrative emerges in the visit of Thomas to the laundrette in the nearest town. Here he chats companionably with a young mother, Carla, who tactfully absents herself at the end of his spin cycle when she realises that he is washing pyjamas and lives in a nursing home. And so the drama of his incontinence emerges: the measures he takes to wash his own sheets, the brutality of Brigid from Housekeeping: “O Thomas, you’ve gone and wet the bed. This is a right mess, a right mess.” His embarrassment is completed by the visit of his grandson, deputed by his mother to talk with him man-to-man about his problem: “They sent Mum a letter and demanded she do something—otherwise, they would kick you out.” The grandson’s awkward tenderness enables Thomas to accept the intractable evidence of his ageing body and the box of incontinence pads he has consigned to the cupboard: “I’ve been a fool of an old man.” Carla visits, and speaks of him as the father she never had.

Recent films and novels have explored the impact of dementia on long-standing marriages. Fletcher refreshes this genre with the series of journal entries that stand at the centre of his collection. A wife records the hard decision to sell the marital home and move “into care” with her husband: “It’s what’s best for Matthew.” Here she must live separately from him, bear his pleas to be taken home, and then, soon after, accept his attachment to the lady who becomes his inseparable companion: “He doesn’t even see me.” The duty nurse tells her that there is nothing to be done, and the facility manager brusquely reports that “romance is not uncommon among residents in the dementia unit”.

The current ABC series Old People’s Home for Teenagers plays to the more comfortable perception that visiting children will make healing connections with isolated and neglected elderly people and will stand to benefit from the encounter. Fletcher’s Isabelle is sharp enough to spot that Daisy from the local school is only reading to her in exchange for the letter she hopes Isabelle will write for her keepsake book: “The others tell me why they visit. The school class or the badge. We have a good time. They get a note or a photo or whatever they need. All you said was that you liked visiting old people in places like this. I didn’t feel like I was check box to you.” Nonetheless she writes a gracious letter: “You are a caring soul, and people you encounter in life will cherish this side of you.”

Other approaches from the outside world are more problematic still. Kevin’s rare visit to his mother is unwilling, and quickly terminated: “It’s so depressing … I can’t deal with this.” James, from the Church of New Hope, cajoles his way in so that he can collect “offerings”. Ian is dismissed as pianist for singalongs when ninety-two-year-old Nina’s bequest to him alerts her daughter and the administration to their sexual relationship. His justification is that from the age of fifteen he has enjoyed a series of such relationships with elderly women in which he “didn’t make the first move”.

The communication established between teenagers Arthur and Keiko across time, space and historic enmities is reignited when, after seventy-four years, Arthur makes a belated response to Keiko’s rediscovered last letter. Her brother Hinata replies, reporting her death from cancer eighteen months after she wrote that letter, and the joy she had taken in their friendship. In reply to Arthur’s letter to Hinata, there is a letter from his daughter Yoshi, reporting that he, too, has died, and the solace Arthur’s reply has brought to his last days. Set in apposition to these reminders of mortality are the answers Arthur makes to his end-time questions: life has given him “good kids”, a lingering regret for a career path not taken, and the perception that “heaven, or hell, is the life we have made while alive”. To which Hinata has added “memories”; children and grandchildren: “through them I live on”. He believes in “the release of the soul on passing”: “what I think happens when you die is really about what has happened when you are alive”.

Fletcher contrasts the suddenness of death with the prolonged limbo of four bedbound residents. The duty roster requires them to be moved each afternoon to become silent witnesses of the community activities: “they don’t have any family so they won’t have visitors. They don’t talk either, but they look around. They like the movement, I think.”

Changes in the outside world make their impact. The outbreak of Covid brings an outbreak of deaths. Sylvia’s dying struggle, her twitches and groans and reflexes, are shared with her family via computer screen and mediated by the masked and exhausted nurse Bec who sings a hymn, tells a joke, and recalls Sylvia the poker player. At the end of the day she asks herself, “Does being paid to care make my care any less caring?” Bookending the opening scene is the visit of the “Minister for the Ageing” who is heckled by Eric and other technologically-savvy residents: “Our tweets are the only reason you are here … it took us old and tired and sick people running a coordinated social media campaign that got the attention of media to get you here.” The nursing home is closed down, and remaining residents move to new destinations. Young Nate, parked behind a dumpster, rescues an envelope labelled “Writing Group: Resident Songs and Poems”. The poem of Elsie, eighty-seven, puts the book’s message concisely:


Fletcher’s book had its source in daily visits to his mother in a Melbourne nursing home in 2017. Have conditions improved in the intervening years? Surroundings have become more luxurious for the well-heeled retiree, food more palatable and leisure activities more diverse. More rigorous accreditation processes are gradually improving standards of care and staff-to-resident ratios. Gens X, Y and Z will see to it that Eric’s hashtag “#OldPeopleVote” gains ever more traction. Fletcher takes an unflinching look at what nevertheless remains constant: the ageing process and the losses it brings. He celebrates the courage and resilience that can go with it as well.

Not Dead Yet! Stories from the Last Stop
by Mark Fletcher

Mosh Publishing, 2023, 200 pages, $24.95

Jennifer Gribble is Honorary Associate Professor in the Department of English and Writing at the University of Sydney. Her most recent book, Dickens and the Bible: “What Providence Meant”, is now available in paperback.


3 thoughts on “Late Possibilities

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    Food for thought when one is past eighty and a few years for when your wish for all your marbles, sense of humour, and a fairly well used body instead of the other holds true, the thought of “care” later on and all that entails isn’t worth contemplating and the wish for an errant bus or near silent Tesla on ones daily toddle isn’t in the equation, the question of “what’s next” arises, and the answer is probably one of “there is no answer” but a nanosecond after you are gone, it doesn’t matter for the family are digging up the garden since your last words were “the loot and the single malt and grange are buried near the ………………………”

  • Libertarian says:

    I turned up at my father’s nursing home one day where he announced he was ‘lodging an official complaint with management’ because he wasn’t allowed to have his new girlfriend stay in his room overnight. His poor girlfriend quietly holding his hand had no idea what was going on.

    He’d forgotten all about it fifteen minutes later.

  • ianl says:

    Nonetheless, Dr. Jennifer G, the ageing process is a massacre, and perhaps not for the faint-hearted. At the point of loss of dignity, independence and liberty, despairing bodily breakdown. the alternative to ageing is at least to be considered individually.
    Consequently, my position is that Nembutal should be available *to the individual on their request*. Of course we’ve heard all the sidesteps to this from the intrusive busy-bodies, including the guilt-expunging “palliative care”; the first paragraph above is the repost to this. (I have nursed dying family at home several times so there is hard experience here). Those who which to pretend to morality here may well choose to tell it to someone else.

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