Working Lives

Caring for people (1978-1997)

Location: Norfolk

After working in several jobs, later in his working life Ron found his vocation as a member of the caring community at a unit for younger chronic sick people. The most important part of his life was those 20 years he did at the unit. Every day there brought something different, and he met many inspirational people among the residents.

Working to earn money

I didn’t really enjoy going out to work – it was a means of earning money but I couldn’t wait to get out of the door. At that particular time that was virtually slave labour. There was no sickness pay, there was nothing like that – and when you retired there was no pension, or nothing.

Then Mrs ‘T’ took over and twenty-eight shoe factories suddenly disappeared plus all the industry left in Norwich. It was a good job that I did get out when I did – because I don’t know what I would have done!

I’ve worked in Colmans, I’ve worked on a milk round, I’ve worked in a shoe factory, I’ve worked in a market garden. I’ve done anything to earn a bob or two. The most important part of my life was those 20 years I did at Caroline House. They are years I will never ever forget. That was real eye-opener for me.

The ‘young, chronic sick’ unit at Caroline House

I started working at Caroline House when it was newly built. I think I was forty-five. That would have been 1978.

Caroline House was for young people with disabilities. The ‘young, chronic sick’ it was called. They were mostly people with terrible things like Multiple Sclerosis [MS], or some were born with these different handicaps – and some, unfortunately, were paralysed from the neck downwards as a result of traffic accidents. It was quite unique in that it wouldn’t have anyone over the age of sixty.

The thing I liked about Caroline House was every day was slightly different. Not like the routine standing at a bench all day; doing a repetitive thing day after day after day. Nowhere near stuff as dramatic as all this rubbish on the telly – they have more dramas in one week than I had in thirty years of nursing ‑ but you met different people and there was always something happening.

You were looking after people who were completely paralysed and Sister had this rule that we wouldn’t have any sex discrimination – unless the women objected to you – putting the women in the bath and this sort of thing – when you have to virtually do everything for them. By doing that you built up a bond between one another but when unfortunately they passed away that was quite upsetting.

Up until then, some of the poor souls had been bunged into old peoples’ homes, and they withdrew them from different places like that and put them together, so they were all comparatively younger people. When we first went there they asked if we would be prepared to become not only nurses, but friends – and join in the social life.

Well, I did – and I drove the ambulance – took men to the races … we had a little card school – we used to go and play crib in pubs. We also used to take them to shows, and all that sort of thing. This ambulance which I was driving was equipped with stretchers and wheelchairs – quite a challenge, really. I learnt more about life there than I’ve learned about life since.

Although some of them had nothing whatsoever going for them, they had a wonderful time – they got more out of life than some able-bodied people. A good example of what I mean was when I went on the District with the BNA [British Nursing Association] I was working at Aylsham Hospital. They put this man in – he was about fifty-five or sixty (he’d had a stroke) in a ward with four men who’d got Alzheimer’s. In the end he discharged himself. He said,  ‘If I don’t get out of here I shall go stark raving bonkers, because there’ no-one for me to talk to. ‘

The youngest person we had was about eleven years old when she first came to us. She was born with endless disabilities – but she ended up, more or less, as my surrogate daughter. That broke my heart when she died – she died when she was 15 – but she was a lovely little girl.


We learnt the job while doing it, now they’ve got all this wretched paperwork.

At the time, all the training I had was a week at the Norfolk and Norwich and then chucked in at the deep end. Caroline House was supposed to be opened but they postponed it for three months. So there was all us people brought together who had been trained to look after elderly people – and we all suddenly got posted to different places.

I got put on an old people’s ward at the old West Norwich, which used to be the old isolation hospital. That was run on strict terms – the old-fashioned way. The Sister never left her office; everybody used to be called Mr and Mrs, including the patients. Although the patients would often say my name is Billy, and call me Billy … when she weren’t there we would call him Billy – but when she was there it had to be Mr and Mrs, you see.

I’d only been there two days and this bloke’s wife was there and if someone had had an accident in bed he’d call me over and I’d just say, ‘Excuse me … would you mind if I just made your husband comfortable?’ That’s what we used to say.

So I put my arm round his shoulders to lift his head off the pillow … and he collapsed and died there and then! I laid him down. His missus still sat there. I said, ‘I won’t be long – I’ll just go and get someone’.

So I went to Sister and she said, ‘Yes?’ I said ‘Can you come and see Mr So-and so … he’s died.’ ‘Died?’ she said. ‘He didn’t come here to die!’ I said, ‘I don’t care what he’s come here for – he’s dead!’ She didn’t believe me! So she came storming back with me. We went behind the curtains and she said, ‘You’re right. Carry on with your work and I’ll sort it out from there’. Well, after about ten minutes to quarter of an hour, I heard this woman scream, and I thought I bet that Sister’s now told this woman that her husband’s dead. That was the old mentality, you see.

When we went to Caroline House it was more informal. You obviously didn’t call Sister by her Christian name, although some of them did. Her name was Pat – but I always called her Sister – but that other old lady was a cross between Genghis Khan, Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell… the ‘old school’. What I could never understand about her was (I dare say she was one of a thousand) – she knew everything what was going on in that ward – and yet she hardly left that office all day long!

Inspirational residents

There were many reasons residents came to Caroline House, some came for various periods to give their carers, i.e. their husbands or wives (if they were older) or mothers and fathers, a chance to go on a holiday and have a break as they didn’t all stay permanently.

One thing I learned was that I was there eight or nine hours or whatever and I can come home; but if you’ve got somebody severely disabled in your house, you can’t just suddenly switch off and say, ‘I’ve done my eight hours, good-bye I’m going out’.

Some residents had to live with us permanently because they couldn’t be looked after at home or – well I didn’t know all the stories – but some people did live here, but they had quite a lot who were coming and going. It was a twenty-five bed unit – seventeen permanent and eight coming and going – four men and four women.

There is one I shall remember all my life and I’m hoping there is a great hereafter and I will meet her again. She had to have constant care so, every so often … (her mother and father both died and all – on top of all these disabilities!) … her foster parents who were really nice people – used to go away every so often. So she used to come to us – and that was what that was really for – to give their long-term carers (in the case of some, not as husbands or wives or mothers and fathers) a little break from them.

The reason that girl had an effect on me was that she had a useless body. All she could do was move her head and nod it up and down. She couldn’t do anything else at all! But – she had a brilliant brain; she did a sponsored type-in using a knitting needle in her mouth with a thimble on it. I think she sponsored about two thousand words. She even appeared on television with Esther Rantzen as Disabled Child of the Year and, as a result of that, she had a chance to go to America – to Disneyland.

Unfortunately she came home on the Monday and I went in on the Friday morning, and they said Sister wanted to see me in the office. She said,  ‘You’d better sit down. They went to get her up this morning and she’d died in her sleep.‘ She was coming up to fifteen – but she’d packed more into her life than some people who live to be eighty and ninety! She just had that spirit.

Heaven only knows what she would have achieved if she’d been able to walk and to do things like that! Undoubtedly she would have been to University because she had a brilliant little brain. She was an inspiring person. She is my role model inasmuch as when people, including myself, start moaning and groaning you just think of her. She rose above losing both her mother and father, which is a great tragedy at any time – but for somebody like her …

But the women didn’t like her because was very loath to say please or thank you – she was a bit abrupt when she spoke to you – but I’d already worked it out in my mind. If you were paralysed from the neck downwards and you’d lost your Mum and Dad – what had she got to say please and thank you for? Not a lot! So that never bothered me. She was a bit gruff.

There was also a young man with spina bifida. He learned to drive a car; he learned to drive a speedboat on the broad, or a yacht … some form of transport on the Broads… and he had a fairly lively mind. He used liked to have a bet on the horses!

Sister, she told me something I never ever forgot when we first talked: ‘You just remember – them people have got useless bodies but they are human beings first. They’ve got all the same things that you’ve got – but they can’t unfortunately do it.’

I went to the funeral of a lady. Her mother came to me and she said, ‘She absolutely loved you. When she used to come, she say, ‘It’s him today’.

One thing the Sister said was, ‘If they swear at you, swear back at ‘em!’ So that’s what I used to do! I swore at one man and he soon swore back at me. He weren’t having any of my old squit! That was what we was taught to do – treat them as an equal … not just pat them on their head. You’d never hear me say that. Mind you, the Sister did have to brief me that there is a way of doing it. That wasn’t done in a nasty sort of way – and it usually ended up where we was laughing.

Some of the auxiliaries on the ward, they used to make my stomach heave – they’d say of some old man who was in there … he’d perhaps got family and grand-children … ‘Hello my sweetheart; hello my darling’. Heaven forbid, If I ever had to go in, I don’t want some silly young girl who could be my grand-daughter calling me her sweetheart – because that is patronising. The most valuable thing that the Sister taught me was that inside those useless bodies there are human beings trying to get out. They are the same as everybody else.

Special caring people

When I was on the District, I worked on a ward at the old Norfolk and Norwich, there was a young girl about twenty and as I went past she had a cup. So I went over and said, ‘Do you want a hand with a drink?’ So I held the cup while she drank – and I said to her. ‘Excuse me, can I ask you … you’ve got Multiple Sclerosis, haven’t you?’ So she said, ‘Yes’. I said ‘I bet you’re a pain in the backside … they all are!’ She laughed – and when dinner time came, I said to Sister – ‘I haven’t got anything to do, can I go and look after that young lady – she’s got Multiple Sclerosis. She obviously wants somebody to feed her and I’ve done twenty years looking after people.’ So I’d go over, and pull a chair up and take her plate for her and asked, ‘Do you want me to give you your dinner?’.

She gradually moved her hand and she managed to get it on top of mine (I’ll never forget what she said) and she said ‘I love you.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘You’re the first person since I’ve been here who treat me like a human being’, she said. I thought it was a really good compliment really – that was only because said to her, ‘I bet you’re a pain in the backside like they all are! I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m a right bighead – because there were other people like me. But there were some who shouldn’t have been in the job.

More about Caroline House

When I was at Caroline House, there was a big feature in the Evening News which I cut out and kept, about me and the other male nurse. He went in the mornings – so he had all the glory and his photo in the paper – and I done the first shift in the afternoon – and they had a big spread about how that was unique because it was all young people with chronic disabilities and that – and they were going to give them, more or less, an informal life.

That was one of the conditions of employment. When you went for an interview they said that we want someone who would enter into the social life and become friends, not just nursing – and that’s what we decided to do. When this opportunity came along for me to learn to drive the ambulance I went on a course. I say course – it was a couple of days – that was learning how to the use the hoist and everything – and then we used to go out for social events.

The highlights used to be going to Yarmouth races; the Norfolk Show – or somewhere like that. Perhaps the women would go out on their own one night, and the men would go on their own. I could write a book on some of the stories – for instance there was one lady there … she was a really good looking lady! She was very prim and proper, but we used to joke that we could sign in together when we went away, as our surnames were the same.

I used to go in her room, fling the wardrobe doors open so she could pick what she wanted to wear. You don’t just go and bung people’s clothes on – you ask. Not so much the men, but the women. Well, they wanted to go and see the Chippendales. That troop of men, striptease, they were American. There was about three of them – so I said I’d take them but I said I wasn’t going in. I said that I’d come up to take them there; come back to the hospital and then I’ll go back to pick them up.

Well, there was a photo in the paper with these Chippendales and these women. One of them went up to this young woman and he put his arms at the back of her wheelchair and he kissed her on the cheek. Two or three days afterwards she complained of an itchy head – and to cut a long story short … she’d got nits! She went absolutely spare. She said me – ‘Never am I going to see them blasted Chippendales again!’ Mind you – fair dos to them blokes – it wasn’t like she got leprosy or the plague! What was so funny was that it couldn’t have happened to someone more proper.

All the people at Caroline House deteriorated. The worst crippling thing is Multiple Sclerosis. One young lady came to us when she was twenty-three. She’d been trained as a chemist and had a job at the Norfolk and Norwich in the Chemistry Department, and for some unknown reason she gradually slowed down. They discovered that she’d got Multiple Sclerosis. Now, when she got to us she was then paralysed from the neck downwards and she was an epileptic as well. Gradually she lost the power of speech and her eyesight as well. The only thing she could do was hear.  For the last eight years of her life (she was about thirty-two when she died) she was blind, paralysed and dumb.

All she had was her hearing – but I could make her laugh! I used to call myself the ‘old man’. I would say ‘In that scrub tub you’re going …’ And she would laugh. I was quite proud when her Mum and Dad used to say they always knew when I’d looked after her because I used to make sure she had her hair combed and everything – but she was a really nice person.

Unfortunately she couldn’t communicate with you – she couldn’t even stretch forward and hold your hand … or anything … and one of the saddest things was when a couple of visiting auxiliaries came out of her room one day and they said, ‘Someone says you know her. We don’t know what’s wrong with her … she’s crying.’ I said, ‘I know what’s wrong – I bet you was talking over her head about what you done last night. You went out. You shouldn’t do that because she can hear you, she can’t tell you.’ A young girl her age would have been out night-clubbing. So a strict rule was you do not talk over people’s heads!

The first thing that came in my mind when Sister told me they died was, ‘I don’t know where you are but it’s got to be better than what you had down here!’ I felt sorry … but somehow or other that they’d done all that in vain.

That’s my philosophy. Whether I’m right or wrong. Some people might think I’m a bit of a nutter, but I like to think that one day, in the great hereafter, that I’ll meet all them again. Having said that, there are one or two I don’t particularly want to meet again – because they weren’t all nice.

In one respect working there did affect me. I go to Church, and I believe what I believe … whether that’s conventional or not. I would have thought, seeing what I see, that I might think that nobody looks after you – but that didn’t have that effect on me.  It reinforced my beliefs more than ever.

Conditions of work changing

Once I turned 65, at that time you had to go. I did ask to stay on but they wouldn’t let me. If I’d been 65 now chances are that I could have stayed on – but at that time there was a cut-off point and that was it.

In fact that worked both ways – they got rid of people they didn’t really want to lose and they got lumbered with people they really wanted to get rid of! They weren’t all angels – and I must admit (as I said before) I met one or two – how they ever got the job I don’t know!

I’d seen sickness in my own family and things like that – so it wasn’t completely new to me. You had all the ups and downs when your children are ill … I’ve had people die in the family and things like that. But for someone coming off the street at the age of 19, having had a comparatively sheltered life though, it must have been a big shock. It was a shock to me to see them together en masse. We used to go down to the dining room, for this community thing where they all met up and that.

We didn’t have lots of paperwork then. Because you were what they called auxiliaries, you virtually just did your job. In the end that started to creep in … they wanted me to upgrade, but I turned it down. I wasn’t going to get any extra pay and I was quite frank with Sister. I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it. I’ll be doing jobs that they were getting well paid for and they’d foist them on me. Unless I get extra money I’m not going to do it.’

I think there is [extra money] now, but at that time there wasn’t. I could have gone and done the medicines but I didn’t want that. These people were paralysed and they brought the stupid rule in that they were what they called self-medicating – in other words they could take their own medicine. I fought that to the bitter end – I was the last one to give in. I refused to do it. I don’t know what is in those bottles. I said that if someone was paralysed from the neck downwards I’m going to carry the can,  so until I get some sort of written proof that I’m not going to be held responsible for anything I am not going to do it. I had that written in my terms of reference that I was not responsible for the contents of the bottle. All I was responsible for was to see what the label said – but it has been known for the wrong thing to be in the bottle and if you are a trained nurse you most probably would know. But I think now that’s a minefield, the paperwork, but we didn’t have that.

We basically were auxiliary nurses. We did was all the basic stuff –  keeping them clean, feeding them and also doing the last rites – in other words laying them out when they were dead. We werelesser mortals than our trained colleagues. If I would have started in that line earlier, I would have liked to train as a nurse. The reason I think I would be good at it was because I had the right attitude and I loved all my people –even the ones I didn’t like!  It’s difficult to understand but you can love somebody without liking them.

My son the lecturer in Nursing

My oldest boy, I’m quite proud of him, he’s now a lecturer on Nursing at University.

He went in the mental section – but he didn’t have any qualifications … no ‘A’ levels or anything … he learned on the job… He didn’t go to University or things like that and he’s got a damn good job!

He’s just come back from Malawi teaching [members of] the native population to look after the mentally ill and I’m quite proud of him because he did it all through in-house training.

I suppose I could have done that, but I turned it down because of the simple reason I had a family and I said if I was going to take extra responsibilities, I want extra money, but at that particular time they wouldn’t pay it. I think that has changed now, but at that particular time, no. If you became what they called ‘B’, you had added responsibility but you didn’t get any extra money for it. It wasn’t the fact of being mercenary, but I thought that was right.

Comparing some workplaces

I think one of the most depressing things was after I retired, I went to work at a place just outside Attleborough. It was called Osborne House and I went once. I refused to go again – not because of anything that particularly happened, or people being nasty, but they had sixteen old people there, they’d all got Alzheimer’s. You couldn’t believe, that was just like Bedlam that was – and towards the end of the day you’d think you was going crazy.

One of the things that really upset me was that they used to have a communal meal, you see, and we took them down for morning coffee and they came back again about one o’clock. Then we took them in for tea, and then of course we left off. When you took them back to their rooms they had all these photos of their husbands, their wives or children – and they hadn’t got a clue who they were. They kept repeating themselves over and over again – the same question. That’s bad enough when you just do one – but to get sixteen people all the same … in the end I came home and I really was absolutely devastated.

I said I was never going to go there again – and deep down inside there was one thing what bothered me, I could end up the same way! You know the saying … ‘there but for the grace of God’ … so I couldn’t cope with that. Now my boy worked with the mentally handicapped and mentally disabled – but it weren’t my cup of tea.

Give me someone who’s dying and I know what to do … but give me someone who is with Alzheimer’s and I’m sympathetic, but I just can’t cope with it.

If they’d asked me to go and work at Priscilla Bacon [Hospice], I would have willingly gone there, because they wouldn’t take you in unless you were dying, at that particular time. I think they vary it a bit now. I did work over there twice and I felt quite at home there.

I just got one big shock – there was a young girl about 17. They were mostly older people, and she used to come across to Caroline because we were all youngsters to join in with us, so when I used to take them out I used to send over and ask did she want to go.  The story was that she went out to work when she was 16 and she wasn’t exactly very good at the job and they thought she was ‘swinging the lead’ – but to cut a long story short, she went to the doctor and discovered that she’d got an incurable cancer – of the blood. One night they asked me if I would go over to do a night shift as they were short-handed. So I went, and this bell rang and I went in … well, I came out and I cried. She didn’t have no hair at all … because she’d got cancer and she had this wig on … she had an Afro wig so you wouldn’t know the difference. My heart bled for her. She was dead by the time she was 18! Pretty young thing, she was – but I could have coped with that if I worked there.

That was the whole purpose of Caroline House – to try and build up what they called a family atmosphere and make it as informal as possible, with everyone on Christian name terms.

But with the old Matron, when the doctors were coming round for inspection, the patient did have to stand at the end of the beds – and one of them got really upset. Standing there, and starting to cry – but I think that was because he felt a bit humiliated. He was an old man there in his pyjamas and he wasn’t too happy about it – but that was the old regimentation. When I was in hospital myself – when I was about 19 in the RAF – we used to have to get out of bed if you could and stand by the end of your bed. But Caroline was all informal. The doctors used to call them by their Christian names; we used to call the doctors by their Christian names as well! I’ve been out for a drink with a couple of them so it generated this family atmosphere.

An interest in music

One of my many interests is music, and some of the music I like is what they call light music. There was an old conductor called Arthur Fiedler who founded the Boston Pops. He died in 1979 at the best part of 90.

There is  photo of me when I conducted the Norwich Pops Orchestra which was along the lines of the Boston Pops – a symphony orchestra that played popular music. They ran a contest for someone to conduct an orchestra, and I entered it and I won it and I’ve got a CD with my name on it – saying guest conductor Ron Wilkinson! I conducted a public performance. When I actually conducted I had a bow tie on.

Ron (b. 1932) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 19th July 2012.

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