Back in 2016, I mused here on the difficulties of being a carer for an elderly relative, especially when something unusual happens. Then, it was a planned surgical procedure: last week, it was an entirely unplanned disaster scenario, when my mother somehow fell in her own flat on the day before her 90th birthday party was supposed to happen (spoiler alert: it didn’t). Getting to that point should have been something of an achievement, as over Christmas/New Year she’d had a bad chest infection, which had only just cleared up after the second type of antibiotic. She likes birthdays and parties, but with the chest infection we’d already been through a lot of ‘should we go ahead? should we cancel?’ stuff. By Friday we had all decided to go ahead: then on Saturday she fell.
We rushed round to her flat when she phoned and, although I tried a quick 111 call (‘experiencing high volume of calls’), it was clear that with her age and medical history this had to be a 999 job. She had a huge swelling coming up on her forehead and was kind of hyper, refusing to sit down and instead ordering me round to collect belongings etc (the ambulance crew said this was the adrenaline talking). After a generally calming ride in the ambulance, we had a nearly-eleven-hour stay in the emergency department followed by an overnight stay for her, all this partly due to the pressure on the department but mostly because the very wonderful A&E Registrar found it difficult to extract from her previous health authority some important information on her medical history.
On Sunday they let her go home. Transporting 90-year-olds in cold weather is never something one likes to do but it went as well as it could, and we installed her in our spare room. Of course, she’d hardly slept the previous night (we hadn’t slept well either but it was a lot better than her experience) so we all went to our respective beds for two hours. And then it all began: my role as Nurse Helen, which is very difficult to balance with being Daughter. Mum is quite snappy with me – for example, every time I give her the first pill of the day she double checks it is the right one – but rather more charming with outsiders. The week has been a mess. We had to cancel a much-awaited trip to London which involved an overnight stay between two theatre visits, and various other plans have been put on hold.
In the midst of the basic caring tasks – getting her up and fed, pills, doing lunch, getting supper and putting her to bed, cleaning, ‘personal care’, washing, and in all of it remembering to be very careful that she doesn’t bash the still-horrible swelling on her head – I’ve also had to focus on finding some more support for her. Before, it was us, with an hour of a cleaner’s time once a week, a weekly shop, and two friends coming in to play Scrabble with her. At the moment she can’t wear her hearing aid or her reading glasses (at least, not for more than a few minutes; the bruising and soreness are tracking down her face, which has turned to an interesting black and yellow colour). TV and the daily crossword are much trickier in this situation. So her normal activities, such as they are, won’t be happening.
She has a chequered history with carers and cleaners (she’s not alone in this). Before my father died and my mother moved to be close to us, there were various people in both categories whom they paid to help with the house and/or with my father. There were enthusiastic, even obsessional, cleaners – and those who spent most of their slot drinking tea and didn’t seem capable of wielding a duster. There were carers I took to, and ones I didn’t – not at all. There was a carer who inspected the various nick-nacks around the house and wanted to take them to sell at car boot sales. There was one with an abusive partner who asked to move in with my parents; I vetoed that. The carer still left boxes of her stuff in the parental garage and for many months ignored requests to remove it. When you are vulnerable, hiring people to help with very personal aspects of your life is fraught with difficulties. So why don’t I do it all? Apart from not feeling called to this role, and apart from having a lot of other things to do, I’ve been helped by several very wise people to see that becoming Carer makes it hard to have much fun in the Mother/Daughter relationship. There are things which are emotionally uncomfortable to do for one’s parent – uncomfortable for both of us.
By Wednesday, I’d found someone who can help, and she is recommended by another excellent carer we’ve met already. The new schedule swings into action next week, with bonus sessions so that I can fulfil two speaking engagements in another town. However, it still leaves me doing everything most days. The hope is that things will improve. I’d just like to know: when?
In terms of sanity preservation, the county’s service for carers – and I admitted a few years back that by their definitions I’m a carer – is utter rubbish (lists of websites I’d already found). But there are some excellent resources online. I’d single out the blog by The Reluctant Carer, which is so well-observed on the details of dealing with ageing parents; see for example his wonderful piece on how the house becomes a stash of prescription drugs, in which every drawer, every envelope even, contains more of the dratted things. However, with Brexit looming – or not looming? – and rumours of drug shortages around, in my mother’s case I think I just have to leave these where they are.
My main sanity preserver, other than writing, is doing jigsaws. Looking at the psychology of this, it’s not because there’s a clear picture; I also do the wasgij variation, where the picture of the box is only a hint as to what the pieces will reveal. Instead, I think it’s about having the knowledge that there is a place for every piece to go, and a piece to go in every place. At the moment I’ve no idea what the picture within which I’m living is supposed to be, but an hour or so in a world where things fit together and make sense means I can briefly forget about the real picture.
Addendum, April 2019: currently – and I’m well aware that this will change again – things are back on an even keel. That applies both to my mother’s health and to my sanity. Although I’m still doing jigsaws!