With his mother isolated and confused in another city, Colin Hogg describes a reality that many of us with elderly parents will recognise.

Every day, usually late morning, I pick up the phone with a heavy heart and call my mother at her rest home in Christchurch. That’s what they’re called isn’t it – rest homes? Oh, and why is my heart heavy? I’ll try and explain, and I tell this not as a story about my mother, but as a story for all of the lost ones, confused and sometimes fearful in the shadows of this pandemic.

My mother will be 94 in a few days and, at my request, the people at her village are arranging a birthday cake and even some balloons to mark the occasion, though I’m not sure what Mum will make of it. She’s still trying to figure out what to make of being shut in an unfamiliar room with an unfamiliar view.

“There’s a tree out the window,” she tells me. “And people walking by.” She doesn’t really believe she’s back in her old village, though she is. But she’s in another part of it now, in her new room at the full-care rest home rather than in her previous place, a serviced apartment in the same building.

She doesn’t remember that last stroke either, but maybe strokes are things you don’t remember. They can certainly take away the ability to remember. Mum has to be reminded of everything every time I call. It’s our own personal Ground-Hogg Day and I wouldn’t miss it for the world, though I sometimes wish I could.

Mum’s last stroke put her into hospital just a couple of weeks before the Covid-19 lockdown. Her recovery was slow and she only made it back into her village on the very Wednesday the whole country was ordered into isolation and, because she’d come in from outside, she was put into isolation within the isolation of the already-shutdown village for 14 days.

So, not only was the poor old thing shut up in a strange room looking out an unfamiliar window at a previously-unseen tree, she was being attended to by unknown people in masks and gowns. They were taking liberties, she said.

Every day, when I rang from my place in far-off Auckland, she’d ask, “Where am I?” I’d explain and tell her about the virus and how everyone was shut up in rest homes and apartments and houses all over New Zealand, but that didn’t settle her much.

Next day would be the same conversation. Then she became convinced she’d done something wrong and been confined and that no one was telling her the truth, least of all me. She knew I wasn’t telling her the truth because my voice sounded different, she said.

She was frightened, she told me, leaving me feeling helpless beyond belief. I knew she was in good hands, I spoke regularly to her nurses and caregivers and her GP. But there was an ache in me that wouldn’t go away, least of all when Mum wanted to know, over and over, why I hadn’t been to see her.

Each time I tried to explain Covid-19 and the walls it had put round all of our lives, how I couldn’t even see the grandkids just a couple of suburbs away, I could feel why Mum had trouble believing me.

I had trouble believing it myself. It’s science fiction turned fact and, even for an old lady who, as a teenager in Edinburgh, came through the bombs of World War II, it’s impossible. For Mum, it was easier to believe she’d done something wrong and been locked up. That’s all that made any sense to her and she was hanging onto it.

But she said the food was good, though she wasn’t really very hungry. Then she asked again where she was and muttered darkly, “No one tells me anything”, though I’d been telling her everything all over again every day.

And, rather than becoming insistent in my telling, as I’d started out, I became gentler – which is perhaps what made my voice sound suspiciously different. So that didn’t work either.

She’ll get through this, like all the other confused old things shut in their little end-of-life places for this strange duration will get through it. But it is and it has been hard for them, left to their own devices when they have so few of them.

And they keep losing the remote.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

Colin Hogg is a writer known for his music journalism, reviewing and column writing, and for his books and documentary making. In 2018, he published Sam Hunt: Off the Road, his tenth book.

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