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Look Closer Nurse - A poem for the care sector

Posted on 5/08/2016 by David Rennie

It may not be a new piece of commentary but in a time of an ageing population and constant media outcries bemoaning the “chronic” staffing shortages within care Phyllis McCormack’s 1966 “Crabbit Old Woman” is as relevant now as it was at the point of publication 50 years ago.

Commonly known within the health and social care circles, care homes specifically, the poem enjoys its own place in urban legend.  Written from the perspective of an elderly care home resident it is widely believed that the poem was written by a care home resident and unearthed by a staff member after her death.

The poem was in fact penned by a nurse working is a psychiatric hospital for submission into their internal newsletter. Originally titled “Crabbit Old Woman” this piece has also been called "Look Closer", "Look Closer Nurse", "Open Your Eyes" or "What Do You See?"

The poem is a favourite of our Founder and Chief Executive, Pam Easen, who encourages all H1 Healthcare staff (both office-based, and client facing) to consider how we can maintain the dignity of our service users, and approach every interaction with compassion.

“Crabbit Old Woman”
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
At 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 is now 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!

Phyllis McCormack
Registered Nurse, 1966

​If you would like your own copy of the poem, simply click here for a downloadable version.