When I looked after my dad during the last few years of his life, it was one of the most exhausting and stressful experiences I’d ever been through – a weight of responsibility which too often felt like a burden. But it was also one the most intimate times I’d ever shared with him, allowing us to form a bond far closer than any we’d had before. I would have preferred not to have gone through it but, at the same time, I’m grateful that I did.
So, when I read about the proposal recently suggested by junior health minister David Mowat that we should care for our elderly parents as much as we do our own children, I felt conflicted. “One of the things that has struck me is no one ever questions that we look after our children – that is obvious,” Mowat told a select committee. “No one says that is a caring responsibility – it is what we do.” He added that, “the volume of numbers that we are seeing coming down the track” will inevitably impact the way we care for our parents, which “is a responsibility in terms of our life cycle, which is similar”.
In an ideal world, of course, we’d look after those who have looked after us and perhaps there’s a moral argument that we should. But what sounds great on paper doesn’t always work out in practice. Unlike Mediterranean countries, we don’t live in extended, multi-generational families, where grandparents and babies cohabit under the same roof. These days, we work harder and longer hours, and have children later – all reasons why women can’t as easily play the traditional family role of caregiver. We no longer live in small, close-knit communities, but instead might live in a different city or country to our parents. We might not have the financial means to care for them. We might not even like them – maybe they didn’t care for us when we needed them to. There’s also the worry that the government is trying to bow out of its responsibility for the elderly and push it on to families instead.
And yet… there are huge rewards that can come from looking after our mums and dads as they get older. It’s an opportunity to revisit your relationship, form new bonds, learn about your history, see someone in a different light, forgive and forget the things that may have gone wrong and, sometimes, help someone die with dignity.
However difficult and messy it was, I also learnt from it. It taught me, even more than parenting, about patience, compassion and selflessness
My dad, Syd, died from Alzheimer’s, a brutal, unforgiving disease that strips you of personality as well as memory. His decline in health was exhausting and heartbreaking, more so because he lived alone, following his divorce from our mum. He wore layers of clothing, didn’t wash and had no concept of time. He forgot how to switch on a kettle, use his microwave or follow a conversation. Quite often, he’d forget our names, too. Before his diagnosis, and while we still didn’t quite know what was going on, we managed to organise a bit of home help during the day, but at night he’d become a danger to himself – emptying his cupboards of food and mixing ravioli with milk, coffee with soap powder, which he’d try to eat. Or, he’d shave using deodorant rather than foam.
My sister, mum and I kept up a daily rota of visits, terrified he might harm himself, or leave the house, wander off and get lost. He did once – after a search-and-rescue operation, we found him safe, but bewildered, on the South Circular Road. One night, we slept in sleeping bags on his living-room floor, to curb his nocturnal wanderings. “What are you doing here?” he asked us the next morning, forgetting we’d stayed.
When you care for someone and are responsible for their wellbeing, your love takes on a deeper dimension. And so it was with us. There’s nothing like changing an incontinence pad to forge (or force) an intimacy. The man we knew had all but disappeared – we had become the parent to his child.
I’d sometimes feel deeply resentful – I didn’t have the time or energy to look after someone with a terminal illness, as well as my toddler son. I was also aware that I was looking after him far more than he’d ever looked after me. A working-class South Londoner born between the wars, Syd wasn’t so much remote as just not present – he was a casino manager, a slave to night shifts and, although kind and loving, considered raising daughters woman’s work.
It was also terrifying, at times – a sense that we were keeping him alive, that if we weren’t vigilant, he would encounter real danger. We were armed with love, but not the real skills or time to look after him properly.
But, however difficult and messy it was, I also learnt from it. It taught me, even more than parenting, about patience, compassion and selflessness. I felt great respect and sympathy for him as an individual (not just as my father) for enduring such a traumatic, terrifying experience. He was once a strong, funny, clever man who had been brought to his knees.
It quickly became clear that, despite our rota, and the daily help provided by social services, we couldn’t cope. Following a brief, but ravaging, spell in an elderly mentally ill hospital ward, Syd eventually moved into a nursing home. I had been desperate for him to lead an independent life, and was wracked with guilt that we couldn’t provide it. A nurse reassured me that it was the best place for him. She also told me to prepare myself for the long haul, and cherish the time I could still talk to him, because there would come a time when he wouldn’t be able to have a conversation. She was right – inevitably, he forgot who I was. He also forgot how to talk, walk or eat.
I felt hugely privileged being present at my dad’s death, watching as his last breath left his body. It also brought into sharp relief that this will happen to me. The death of a parent confronts you with your own mortality and reminds you that life is a cycle – one day, we too will need looking after.
But we couldn’t have looked after him by ourselves. Investing in a relationship with your parents as they grow older is one you won’t regret. But, if we want to offer the elderly a dignified, fulfilled end to their life, then we all need to take part – as a society and as individuals who might want to give something back to those we love.