Friday, 23 February 2018

A Crabbit Old Woman

I have a friend who is a university lecturer .
Well in actual fact I have two, but that's another story
We talked the other day and she shared with me some of the learning outcomes the student nurses were expected to achieve by the end of her sessions.
Patient dignity was one such outcome.

When I completed my nurse training our tutor covered the subject of patient dignity in one afternoon.
He read out a poem. A poem that was supposedly written by a elderly patient on a ward in Dundee and one that was found by the nursing staff only after the patient had died.
Our tutor was a theatrical type, a delightful, camp old Quaker called Leslie Brint.
He performed the poem with all of the  flair of Ian McCellen and there was not a dry eye in the house after he had finished.

"Look Closer Nurse"
What do you see nurse, what do you see
Are you thinking when you're looking at me 
A crabbbit old woman, not very wise
Uncertain of habbit, with faraway eyes 
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice, "I do wish you'd try" 
Who seems not to notice the things that you do
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe 
Who, resisting or not, lets you do as you will 
With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill
Is that what you're thinking, is that what you see
Then open your eyes nurse, for you're looking at me

I'll tell you who I am as I sit here so still 
As I use at you biddings, as I eat at your will
I am a small child of ten with a father and mother
Brothers and sisters who love one another
A young girl of sixteen, with wings on her feet
Dreaming of soon her lover she'll meet
A  bride soon at twenty my heart gives a leap
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep
At twenty five now I have young of my own
A woman of thirty, my young growing fast
Bound to each other with ties that will last
At forty my young sons will now grow and be gone
Af fifty, once more babies play around my knee
Again we know children my loved one and me

Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead
I look to the future, I shudder with dread
For my young are all busy, rearing young of their own
And I think of the years, and the love I have known
I'm now an old woman and nature is cruel 
Tis her jest to make old age look like a feel
The body, it crumbles, grace and vigour depart
There isnow a stone where I once had a heart
But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells
And now and again my battered heart swells
I remember the joys, I remember the pain
And I'm loving and living life all over again
I think of the years all too few - gone, so fast
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last
So, open your eyes nurse, open and see
Not a crabbit old woman, look closer, see ME


  1. I recently found out that the poem was in fact written by a nurse in 1966

  2. still relevant,whoever wrote it

  3. That 1966 nurse must have been a good one.

  4. Nearly 20 years ago I was in hospital, the man in the next bed had dementia and a broken hip. He cried in pain and confusion while his surgery was delayed for days. One of the nurses got cranky when he messed his bed and didn't try very hard to feed him. The next nurse was kind and patient and gave him some dignity. Remembering still makes my eyes prick with tears....

    1. we all remember the good care and unfortunately also the bad!

  5. I hope doctors read it in their training too.

  6. I love the poem, and I have saved it for a future use unknown.

    Is Bangor in Ireland? Have you ever taken a day trip to there?

  7. I used that poem several times in secondary school English lessons.

  8. A moving poem, with a lot of truth in it!

    I think not only nurses should be taught things. We should all be taught from childhood, that if we're lucky we'll reach old age which is sort of a second childhood; only this time without parents to guide and help us, with children busy in their own affairs, with dogs and cats that cannot give us a cup of tea, with bad life habits(smoking, overeating etc..), and so we lose our independance and health, and need the attention of nurses. In many cases, that could be avoided or much delayed.

    1. I was heartened to see the YP ( who was a teacher) used to discuss this poem with his students

  9. We all need to be reminded that empathy is one of the best human emotions. It also makes me think of a character in a book when I was very little called 'Mrs Do as you would be done by'

  10. Anonymous12:05 pm

    I have seen this poem before, or one very similar and it is food for thought. The best we can all hope for is dignity especially in old age.

    Joan (Devon)

    1. Alan bennett's talking head " a woman of no importance" was very similar but from another direction

    2. Anonymous12:52 pm

      My daughter was a nurse, and during her training she brought home a very similar poem, and at the time I found it very moving.

      Now I am almost 73 and my Husband 74 and not in good health, I find it even more poignant. It is true nature is cruel, because in my head I am only 27 with 2 young children,

      John I read your blog each day, but have never commented before, and very often read it to my Husband.


    3. thank you marie, greetings to you and your hubby

  11. I found this poem amongst my mothers papers after she died (my mother had been a nurse). I also found a beautiful Lucy Mabel Attwood type of postcard, very tatty, that had been sent to my mother after she had an operation on her arm when she was 6 years old. It had been sent by a nurse that had nursed her, but had been transferred to another hospital. My mother had kept this for over 80 years. I had never seen it before, but it must have been very precious to her.

    1. hello Eleanor ( can I call you Nellie)
      its funny what becomes precious to us

    2. Lol, that's what my father used to call me when he'd had one or two pints.

  12. I bristle at the patient being described first as a bundle of diagnosis, symptoms and treatments. I had a couple of nurses who saw beyond that to see me, but to most I was just the 56 year old male, with xxxx, xxx, xxxx.

    1. you have a life changing experience, at those times personalised care is vitally important

  13. And not only "see ME" but also see yourself when you get old (not you in particular, John! just nurses and doctors and carers of the elderly in general). I know that caregiving is very difficult at times, but the elderly are so vulnerable and they do have needs and feelings just as everyone else.

  14. Nothing like starting my morning with some tears. This is so true and so sad .

  15. After my grandmother suffered a stroke she went to a cottage hospital where she died soon after. My step father visited one afternoon to find my grandmother sat in a hair with her nightie so high up all and sundry could see her lady bits. We were told by a patient in the next bed a nurse had said, " we will leave that fat old bag til later ' shocking behaviour

    1. sickening. I hope someone reported that nurse. sadly every month there are dozens of such cases being reviewed by the NMC (nurse and midwifery council)

  16. Thank you for sharing this. I follow your blog daily and always enjoy reading your ideas and perspective.

  17. I have read those words many a time.
    Wise Keeper “food” . . .

  18. There was a short film made based on this, we were shown it during some of our first classes as student nurses and then again before we graduated....very moving

  19. One poem can take the place of hours of text book study.
    This one does.

  20. As a student nurse in the early 80s my nurse tutor made all of the group in the nursing school sit (in uniform) on an empty bed pan put on a bed for 5 minutes. Even being physically fit it was difficult to balance for that time, and being fully clothed it was very uncomfortable. A lesson well learnt.

  21. We'll all be old one day, if we live long enough.

    1. I'm off on the ice flows before that happenes

  22. I think some one has done a video for this poem. Both are very moving.

  23. I am constantly running these thoughts through my head now because of mom. On her good days she must wonder what the heck is going on, she must feel like she's in elder jail. I think of all the times I lost patience with her, the guilt, the guilt.

    1. being a carer can be almost impossible, I hope your mums nurses are kind ones most are

  24. True not just for nurses, Jon. For all of us. As I've found, we all get there.

    P.S. Bangor........small world. I gave a lecture on clinical cardiopulmonary exercise testing at a Hospital there. 2007 I think.

  25. I've read it many times..... I always try to think of how I would like to be treated and go from there.

  26. Thank you. I shall pass that on.

  27. No matter how many times I read that it always gets to me.

    There is also 'The Nurses Reply' which is almost as poignant.

    What do we see, you ask, what do we see?
    Yes, we are thinking when looking at thee!
    We may seem to be hard when we hurry and fuss,
    But there’s many of you, and too few of us.

    We would like far more time to sit by you and talk,
    To bath you and feed you and help you to walk.
    To hear of your lives and the things you have done;
    Your childhood, your husband, your daughter, your son.

    But time is against us, there’s too much to do -
    Patients too many, and nurses too few.
    We grieve when we see you so sad and alone,
    With nobody near you, no friends of your own.
    We feel all your pain, and know of your fear
    That nobody cares now your end is so near.

    But nurses are people with feelings as well,
    And when we’re together you’ll often hear tell
    Of the dearest old Gran in the very end bed,
    And the lovely old Dad, and the things that he said,
    We speak with compassion and love, and feel sad
    When we think of your lives and the joy that you’ve had.

    When the time has arrived for you to depart,
    You leave us behind with an ache in our heart.
    When you sleep the long sleep, no more worry or care,
    There are other old people, and we must be there.

    So please understand if we hurry and fuss -
    There are many of you,
    And so few of us.

    1. I think this dovetails this post beautifully x

  28. I have a friend that makes a point of finding out the names of the homeless, and often mentally ill, people she encounters. She insists on recognizing their humanity. I love it.

    1. Thoughtful and a small yet very large gesture

  29. Anonymous7:11 pm

    It can be very easy to fail to see the humanity in elderly people if the can't communicate. i remember visiting my Dad in a small nursing home in Wales when he was convalescing. Due to strokes he hadn't talked to us and didn't seem to recognise us for quite a while. there were 6 of us visiting, chatting away - Dad in a chair and my sister in law cutting up Newberry Fruits (his favourite!) and feeding the to him. He all of a sudden started laughing and trying to 'talking' to us -couldn't understand a word! But he obviously was enjoying the company and the chat it was lovely to see him happy. He died not long after that. He was a lovely man.
    So don't give up on people just cos they are old.
    Sorry to be anonymous

  30. I love that even though it did make me tearful.My mum was in hospital for 6 months & has massive stroke & cancer.She was 56 but couldn't move by herself.I went each day & all but one nurse was kind to her.She told me about the cruel nurse & my aunt overheard & went straight to her & told her to treat my mum kindly.The others always seemed to see beyond her illness & I remember one young nurse saying to my mum as she washed her limp body-laughing kindly to her"you've the body of a young woman"-she had,she was suntanned,slim & blonde-but wrecked.Mum was pleased that the young nurse could see how she was previously x

  31. We too had this poem in nursing school. I hadn't read the nurses reply. So true. I work in a GP practice and find the work load increasing, the targets etc all getting too much. I want to retire. I didn't go into the profession for this. Short staff and uncaring GPS who don't see staff struggling and that's without the patients. The elderly who want to chat. We try to give them time. So hard. Thanks for posting.

  32. Tears are in my eyes as I write this. It is so scary to think we will all be in that place soon. We can only hope that our nurses will be kind and compassionate. Thank you, John, for posting this.

  33. Anonymous11:13 pm

    Nurses are human too!. I,ve had the day from hell. Most of my time was spent with 2 bariatric patients. Bed , chair commode to pass wind, full body hoist at least 10 times each with 2 staff members.their dressings needs and wants loudly voiced by them and family!. I so failed my little frail patients that i gravitate to. No time for extra sips nutrition or a hand hold. Tomorrow is a new day!. Will not be dictated to!.

  34. Another aspect of the patient condition is hiding in plain view as a children's poem--the Dormouse and the Doctor, by A.A.Milne, about withdrawing when you don't like what your keepers are providing for an environment. This hit me when the staff of the nursing home thought my newly admitted aunt was gravely demented, while with me she was pretty much as sharp as ever.
    It's too long to post here but easily Googled.

  35. What a lovely poem will have to write it down for a friend who works with the elderly as a volunteer in a nursing home where she visits with them brings them tea paints there nails if they wish and listens to their stories, she is elderly herself but fit as a fiddle.

  36. Moist eyeballs here and hoping I pop my clogs before I get to a state of incapacity.

  37. I've heard it's good practice to hang pictures of older nursing home patients when they were young and in family settings. Suppose to remind care givers that the patient has a history and is not the person they see before them.


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