I heard on the radio this morning about plans by to rescue English football clubs, and events to support out-of-work actors. Then news that front-line NHS workers are not going to be included in the government’s new pay freeze. That’s all to the good. But there’s another group of people who are in great demand during the pandemic. Throughout this country and the world, their skills are much under-valued – at least in monetary terms.
If you use the polite term, it somehow hides the foulness of a truth that we all know: care for people in their first and last days involves defaecation and cleaning up afterwards. Today I want to celebrate the people who do that job and so many other necessary things for the elderly and infirm - day in, and day out. We casually refer to them as ‘carers’.
There were three women at my aunt’s funeral this week – their names begin with K, N and V. They represent the best of an army of low-paid carers who have faithfully, patiently and consistently done all the vital, practical things needed by a bed-bound woman in her final years.
Moving someone with as little mobility as my aunt had, especially when they become un-co-operative, as she did latterly, eventually took two carers. To change her incontinence pads and/or her sheets, they lifted and rolled her four times a day - talking to her patiently, soothing her, sometimes laughing gently with her, treating her with respect and concern.
These three women and their colleagues kept my aunt clean and groomed before, and then during, her progressing dementia. They washed her hair and cut her nails. They treated her skin breakdown, administering medication regularly, monitoring her fluid intake as her needs became more and more complex and the tasks of caring for her multiplied. Some of this work was time-sheeted – significantly, a great deal of it was not. They went far beyond the call of duty. Some returned to chemists more than once to search for lost prescriptions. Many called or texted me with updates on various needs and developments.
A few months back, after my aunt had had a minor stroke, she would angrily resist help with her only ‘useful’ hand. They would feed her – dodging the right upper cut. They patiently answered her oft-repeated crazy, and sometimes angry, questions. Bravely, they still continued with their vital and intimate work, during both lockdowns, hand-sanitising regularly and wearing PPE.
I’ve had Power of Attorney since 2004 but I live 40 miles from my aunt. I could visit her only once – or at most twice – a week. In between times, I don’t know what she or I would have done without the practical, local care offered by generous people of all kinds. There was W, who shopped and cleaned and liquidized food and ran endless errands with her husband. Or, my aunt’s neighbour M, going through loss herself, but always so willing to conduct into my aunt’s apartment people without access privileges. She would check the post or reassure me that all was well with Myrtle at unsocial hours. Nothing was ever too much trouble – for M or any of the carers!
Caring skills are so expertly and gently carried out that throughout life it’s easy to take them for granted. But they are basic to our comfort and survival from the first to the last days of our lives. When I come to my own last days, I hope that there are women around like M, K, N, V and W!