It becomes even more obvious, as I spend another week living with my 98 year old aunt, how dependent we are on one another as human beings trying to live decent lives.
It’s also obvious that “wellbeing” is the only really important issue in life, which is true whether you’re 98 years old or a newborn child.
What do we mean by wellbeing? What is a good life? What is a good society?
For me it’s been a week of late autumn sunshine and an opportunity to catch up with what’s been happening to my aunt. For her it’s been a week of staying in bed and struggling to survive.
She’s survived so many threats and challenges this year, thanks to the help and care of the people around her. Who was it who said, “There’s no such thing as society – there are only individuals and their families”? That was the person who coldly and deliberately set out on an ideological crusade to destroy the welfare state, and let the devil take the hindmost. Her political sons and daughters are now eager to complete the task of selling off state assets, privatising and marketising our lives and our society.
So far this year my aunt has survived a broken hip, and the replacement of a hip joint. This was a brilliant operation carried out by an NHS surgeon, following a day spent by my aunt in A & E.
She survived a chilly night in April spent on her kitchen floor, following a fall that broke her femur. She survived one of the worst cases of hypothermia the hospital has ever seen. (Sadly she hadn’t been able to activate the alarm pendant she wears around her neck.)
She’s survived another fall that resulted in a deep gash in her forehead, which required another trip to A & E, following her neighbour’s quick response to the alarm activation.
She’s survived recurring bouts of severe constipation and complete loss of appetite. She’s survived periods of severe dehydration.
She’s survived urine infections, one of which gave her severe delirium.
She’s survived, after a lifetime of complete self-sufficiency, the indignity of losing her independence, including the ability to make food for herself or go to the toilet by herself.
She’s survived as a result of having a caring and loving team of professionals around her. She’s survived thanks to good neighbours and close family. She’s indeed part of a Big Society.
Since my aunt has no children of her own it’s fallen to me to take on the power of attorney. It’s been my task to organise a team to take proper care of her.
The task was much simplified by my cousin knowing a local company that provides carers for the elderly. It’s a small company she’s been using for some time to look after her 97 years old mother, who is completely unable to walk.
And who are all these amazing people who help to take care of my aunt with such high levels of dedication, knowledge, skill and empathy?
In the past few days we’ve had visits from district nurses, a doctor and a physiotherapist. We’ve taken delivery of a pressure mattress and additional medication.
The people who continue to impress me the most are those who are the least academically qualified and who are probably the least well paid. Clearly there are good and not so good people in every walk of life, but I’m pleased to say that my aunt’s carers are all brilliant. What’s more, they enjoy their work, they find it challenging and interesting, and they have high levels of skill, understanding, experience and empathy. They are down to earth, realistic, great communicators, incredibly patient, kind and resilient.
In the beginning aunty was not happy about strangers coming and going at regular intervals in the house where she’s lived alone for 20 years. Having always been mistrustful and fearful of life, the universe and everything, she took time to get to know these women who have become such essential parts of her life.
Having got past aunty’s crankiness and control freakery, they now know her better than anyone has ever known her. They take care of her intake of vitamins, iron and calcium. They can judge when to stop and start her Loperamide. They know when she needs Electrolade. They administer her other daily tablets. They make appointments for her doctor and the district nurse. They liaise with social services over delivery of essential equipment and maintenance of the stairlift. They know her food and drink likes and dislikes, and make sure she doesn’t run out of essentials. They phone me whenever they have concerns.
Picture this. Early evening, two days ago. A carer arrives to put aunty to bed. The carer can take up to an hour to make a milky drink, take aunty upstairs, take her to the bathroom, wash her and change her into nightclothes, and give her the regular medication. After a while one of the line managers arrives, saying she was ‘just passing’, to check out how aunty is feeling. A few minutes later one of the ‘senior’ carers arrives (not that she’s even ‘on duty’) on account of her having heard on the grapevine that aunty is unwell and hasn’t been eating this week.
Yes, Mr Cameron, sir, we’re “all in this together”. We need one another. We need our communities. We need a sense of “society”. We need to respect one another, appreciate one another, and take care of one another.
Is it selfish or unrealistic of me to want carers throughout the country who are happy in their work, well trained, well-motivated and paid a living wage? Carers who are not on “zero hours” contracts? Who are paid for the cost of commuting between one client and another?
Is it wrong for me and others to feel sick and tired of having to speak out for the rights of the elderly and the people who care for them? Is it wrong for me to feel angry that our society still functions on the basis of hierarchies and widespread contempt for those who don’t ascend the academic pyramid, who don’t climb the greasy pole of self-promotion and self-enrichment? Why do we still talk about children who have ‘failed’ by the age of eleven or sixteen – simply because they didn’t reach the “required standard”? Why do so many regard those who don’t go to university as failures and also-rans?
I’ve no reason to believe that the likes of Messrs Cameron and Gove have a single clue about the lives of ‘ordinary’ people. Perhaps they do sincerely believe in ‘meritocracy’ and would like to see more working class students in our universities. But why? Why is it assumed to be ‘good’ if someone goes to university and ‘bad’ if they don’t? Why are middle class children so afraid of NOT getting to university? Why should they feel ashamed and feel like failures if they don’t?
It’s time we grew up as a society and stopped to think about certain elitist assumptions and class-based attitudes.
It’s certainly past time that we stopped feeling ‘intensely relaxed’ about the mega rich, about poverty, about social injustice and about gross inequality.