Whisky on the cornflakes and other confessions from a carehome

Whisky on the cornflakes and other confessions from a carehome: A comedian’s blackly funny account of life as a carer is enough to make you die laughing

  • Care Quality Commission would give advance notice of their inspections 
  • Pope Lonergan worked at a carehome that booked a petting zoo on a visit
  • UK-based writer details anecdotes of his time as a carer in his new book  



by Pope Lonergan (Ebury £16.99, 304pp) 

A decade ago, whenever the Care Quality Commission conducted an inspection at a care home, they would give advance notice of their visit. This obviously allowed the management time to prepare. 

The Essex home at which Pope Lonergan worked then decided to book a petting zoo for one inspection. Various small, cuddly animals were brought in so the residents could stroke and fuss over them. As one woman sat contentedly scratching a rabbit’s long, floppy ears, a CQC inspector asked her if she was having a nice time. 

‘Oh yes,’ came the reply. ‘We never have anything like this on a normal day.’

Pope Lonergan worked at a carehome in Essex. He speaks about how Ninety-eight-year-old Simon would pour whisky onto his cornflakes 

It’s a typically honest moment in Lonergan’s funny, moving and challenging memoir of his time working as a care assistant, as he did for most of his 20s. The elderly residents (management want him to call them ‘clients’, but he refuses) are a curious bunch, by turns amusing and infuriating.

Even those with dementia can retain enough short-term memory to observe and remember the code for the door, though their escape attempts rarely get further than the goldfish pond. 

Ninety-eight-year-old Simon never sleeps in pyjamas because as an ex-Navy man he knows that if the ship sinks they’ll weigh you down. He also pours miniatures of whisky onto his cornflakes. Tempers often fray. 

‘It can be funny, but tragic,’ writes Lonergan, ‘when two male residents try to “wrestle”. A slow-motion altercation. You could disrupt it by slotting a piece of paper between them.’ Meanwhile, a reminder on the staff noticeboard reads: ‘Dorothy tried to bite a light bulb. Put things away!’ 

The staff are far from perfect themselves. Tracy once searched frantically for Arthur’s socks — Arthur has no legs. And Charlie Big Trousers, one of the entertainers, is so bad he’s good: ‘He can’t sing. Or dance. Or stand upright for longer than 15 minutes at a time . . . ­During a rendition of “LOVE” by Frank Sinatra, he spelt out the word “LOAF” accidentally.’ 

Lonergan sounds like the very best sort of carer. He takes pride in treating each resident on their own terms, which can’t be easy near the end of a 14-hour minimum-wage shift. 

UK-based writer details anecdotes of his time as a carer in his new book. Including how Simon wouldn’t sleep in pyjamas 

Barry, who is strong and well-built (or rather was in his younger days), gets angry that he’s in care. 

‘So now, when he needs assisting, I make it seem as if he’s guiding the situation. As if he’s the foreman.’ 

Instead of simply removing Barry’s soiled pants so he can throw them away, Lonergan asks him what he thinks they should do. The older man’s anger subsides, and he says: ‘It’s probably best if we bin ’em.’ 

The writing is excellent. Trying to keep an eye on all the residents simultaneously is ‘a constant game of Whac-A-Mole’. One male resident has ‘faded tattoos like ink bleeding through toilet paper’, while the unresponsive audience at one entertainment session have faces ‘like wet laundry draped over a radiator’. 

Lonergan also throws in some quotes from his clearly extensive reading. The French philosopher Simone Weil, for instance, thought that ‘attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer’. And the U.S. Navy admiral William H.McRaven advised: ‘If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.’ 

That bit of advice was useful to Lonergan as he fought (successfully) to beat his five-year addiction to opiates, which came about partly as a way of coping with his job. 

He has been ‘clean(ish)’ since 2017. One of the reasons he refused to apply for promotion is that it would have given him access to the safe containing the residents’ drugs (oxycodone, morphine sulfate — ‘the good stuff’). 

He feels that his binges with other addicts gave him an insight into what it’s like to lose your mental faculties. 

‘I remember thinking, “This must be what dementia feels like”. People you don’t properly recognise, talking at you, while the rest of the bodies in the room seem unreasonably tranquil and refuse to acknowledge you if you speak. You’re on a different wavelength to everyone there, wondering “Why is no one else panicking?” ’ 

Lonergan’s first job after leaving school was in a pet supply store. He once hid inside a doghouse in his manager’s office, planning to scare him when he reappeared. But the manager entered with two colleagues and started discussing budgets. 

Mark Mason says that tragedy of this book is that the people who really need to read it probably wouldn’t understand it

‘I’d left it too long to show myself. I waited for 45 minutes … Eventually it was too much . . . I crawled out backwards… [they] started blankly… “I reckon that should be fine,” I said, rapping the top of the doghouse with my knuckles before nonchalantly walking out.’ 

It’s no surprise, given stories like this, that Lonergan combined his care work with a career as a stand-up comedian. ‘If there’s an audience member who’s particularly stubborn and resistant, I turn them into my “dad” and spend the rest of the set trying to make them proud of me.’ 

If his gigs are as entertaining and thought-provoking as this book, I’d like to go to one. Lonergan is superb at combining the mundane and the profound, and indeed knowing they’re often the same. 

One female resident died suddenly, holding Lonergan’s hand in the conservatory, while on his other side sat a blissfully unaware eight-year-old girl with whom he was discussing Peppa Pig. It’s a truly beautiful episode. 

The tragedy of this book is that the people who really need to read it probably wouldn’t understand it. 

Certainly not the senior manager who once strode into the dining room a t Lonergan’s care home ‘wearing a three-piece suit and asked, “Is everyone having a safe afternoon, ladies and gentlemen?” ’ Nor the type of doctor (increasingly prevalent, it seems to me) who views him or herself as some kind of god, and patients as sets of statistics there to do as they’re told. 

In his work, Lonergan tries to understand ‘the person rather than the illness . . . I avoid a doctor’s habit of seeing “people with dementia” as one homogenous group.’ 

He knows that the best NHS staff realise the dangers of the country treating them as infallible: ‘Vaunted, sanctified positioning can actually obstruct workplace accountability’. But then there are others: ‘Some of these doctors hate for their authority to be challenged by a lowly carer.’ 

Give me Lonergan, and his approach to caring, any day. 

It’s not just what it achieves for his residents, it’s what it teaches the carer himself, ‘Witnessing the essentialism of those final seconds on earth, and how it’s the same for everyone . . . it’s levelling and it’s clarifying. In death we’re all, finally, equal.’

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