Tuesday 19 May 2020

Bored? No time!

I cannot say I have joined the masses who are filling their time following Joe Wicks nor watching box sets. For me it’s more like being the mother of a new-born - countless half cups of tea await me when I do finally sit down.

If Richard had more stamina he’d be up doing morning tea, bringing me breakfast in bed, hoovering, feeding the cat and taking the car to the co-op to do the shopping for the next couple of days. I would have time to do the washing, the finer points of cleaning in the bathrooms and kitchen and potting up in the garden. I would have time for tea and time to sit and read a paper. And editing, critiquing and enjoying fiction.

But, now, my mornings, in particular, start early and there is rarely breakfast in bed. Sometimes our enthusiastic cat wakes me at six a.m. by sitting on my head, crying loudly in my ear, rubbing himself against my face or simply landing on me and rolling around with a loud purr. Whatever behaviour he manifests the importunate beast gets his way and I stagger down to the kitchen to part fill his bowl with whiskas while I rapidly make myself a cup of tea before he wants a top up of Sheba.

If I’m lucky I get to listen to Today - which is a joy now the misery Humphreys has left. When I’m more awake I disinfect door handles, front door knocker, letter box and lock. I spray Flash on the bannister rail, taps, loo handles, light switches, cooker, washing machine and dishwasher controls, cupboards, fridge and freezer door handles. Finally I disinfect the necessary ie the loos.

If the cat is content I make myself breakfast, unload the dishwasher, put out or check any washing on the line, hoover and dust. Then I check on Richard. If he’s awake he’s ready to have his bowl of soap ( not soup) and hot water to wash his hands for the regulation twenty seconds. Then he has an orange or cereal and his meds. He usually has water but often I make him tea which he’ll sip and leave until he’s ready to drink half a mug. Meanwhile I disinfect the ensuite and make him his sachet if he feels the ravages of prostate cancer treatment are making him feel constipated. This, now, is only occasional. Usually he’ll sleep until midday. He has post-surgery depression, PTSD, psychosis and anxiety. Exactly the issues now confronting covid-19 patients who have undergone endless, frightening days on ventilators and a lack of family contact. I’d never heard of post-hospital PTSD, depression, psychosis and anxiety until Richard suffered from it in the autumn. Now it seems to be in the daily headlines. I also understand cancer patients suffer similar post -hospitalisation depression and anxiety. Others who have had prolonged treatments have said while they may have physically overcome procedures their mental health took a long time to stabilise.

This situation requires that I carry the label ‘carer’. Carer in my case means the following: checking that Richard eats well, takes his meds, stays hygienic and has some stimulation which, for him, is usually in the evenings. It also means I get to do everything around the house and garden. 

Richard is still very quick at answering questions on early evening tv quizzes and at University Challenge. He’ll cook most evenings, now, and will cut the lawn, deal with the bloody recycling, sweep the stairs and is just beginning, again, to follow life-drawing classes. He engages with Grayson Perry’s inclusive art series and loves BBC 4 programmes. (Please don’t take BBC4 away! ) But in lockdown I can’t provide the social interaction he needs to be fully part of society again. Now our small local shop has closed - since lockdown - he doesn’t go there for milk and a chat and he can’t get a drink nor mix in the pub or in our local brasserie. All these interactions would help him overcome anxiety and depression. Thankfully the psychosis seems less troublesome now.

We are entering the warm months of the year and I can spend hours weeding, watering and digging the garden. I put in this year’s broad beans and potatoes, for Richard. The French beans have just gone into their planting spaces after ten days’ hardening off. The courgette seedlings have got through a whole night outside but under cover. They are five days behind the beans and aren’t fully hardened off yet but are leaping out of their pots.The tomato plants are eager to go out too but not full time yet. 

When I’ve finished my morning’s gardening I’ll deal with the post, disinfecting it first, choose what to serve for lunch and prep an evening meal unless Richard seems eager to do so. There are endless things to arrange eg house insurance, boiler breakdown cover, Richard’s medical appointments and procedures, organising workmen - within social distancing rules - contacting friends, family and neighbours and so on.

But the area that has dominated my life since lockdown has been shopping. Because I can’t drive and Richard is advised not to until he’s more alert ( an overused term now, surely) the big weekly shop is out. We rely on deliveries. To my pleasure Sainsburys sent us a ‘you are priority’ email, which was great, at the start of lockdown. But that was a short-lived joy. We couldn’t book another delivery slot for five weeks. Thankfully our local WhatsApp group recommended a foodies heavenly farm shop which also sells and delivers household items like washing up liquid. But I also had to get deliveries from Superdrug and Holland & Barrett for shampoo, gluten-free ingredients and sugar-free items. Neighbours have been shopping for me too. It’s been a lifeline. And, when you consider Richard has shopped and cooked for me for forty years, you’ll see what a change this has been for me. But we prevail.

Sainsburys delivery slots are, tentatively, improving. The driver yesterday said they were recruiting from agencies and working round the clock to get deliveries out to households. I didn’t have the heart to question why there were no eggs in my shopping. No eggs!!

After a big shop has arrived at our doorstep I wash every item to ensure covid-19 isn’t lodged in our household and put them to drain on cloths, ensuring chilled and frozen food get into the fridges  and freezer first. 
It takes ninety minutes to put all my shopping away, to wash the cloths, bags and floors that have been in contact with the outside world and finally to wash my hands thoroughly and strip out of my possibly contaminated clothes. 

Sounds neurotic? You bet. But if I got covid-19 Richard wouldn’t cope in the mornings. I would be in bed, ill, desperately in need of a drink but he’d be far away in the land of medicated nod. If he contracted the virus he’d have a set back mentally and would become even more anxious and confused. I truly can’t take risks.

I’m not bored. I don’t have the time or energy for it. Until Richard is well and driving I am a domestic goddess. Or a maid of all works. Take your pick! I’m busy, that’s certainly true.

Where do I fit in reading, editing, critiquing, virtual pub quizzes and zoom calls? My regime is a bit like working full time, but without the social interaction nor the traffic jams. Time to get bored? Time to watch box sets? Time to follow Joe Wicks? Erm ... that’s for others. Meanwhile I’m keeping house and home as intact and functional as I can manage. And I have lots of early nights! I just about managed to write this as we don’t have medical appointments today. 

Will life return to normal? What is normal? And would I recognise it? I don’t have time to ponder such things for long! 


Tuesday 12 May 2020

Every man ( and woman) for themselves

Many weeks ago, when my marathon runner friend, just turned seventy, went into self-imposed lockdown for twelve weeks I thought he wouldn’t cope. After all, ever since he turned 16, he’s done a daily run. And when he said people near him weren’t keeping their social distance and he had two freezers full of food I knew he was taking the c-virus risk to his health very seriously. However I had to laugh when he said neighbours were supplying him with milk and oranges but none had arrived. I told him he was more likely to die of thirst than c-virus. Needless to say the milk was delivered and eight weeks later he’s still keeping fit running upstairs in a timed workout.

Now he says he’s had an argument with neighbours. I’m surprised as he’s so mild-mannered but he hates the fact they are not adhering to social distancing.

Where he and I have agreed all along is that our government’s response has been too slow to react to the c-virus risk, too slow to take up offers of manufacture of visors and PPE in the early days of infection in the UK, too slow to test, track and trace and that it would be the poorest who became victim as we are run on such outdated social class groupings in the UK now. We both agree Nicola Sturgeon, Angela Merkle and Jacinda Ardern have got the right idea and how Germany, having a scientist at the helm, has cracked the disease as far as is humanly possible.

We both agree that we will still be staying home as the easing of lockdown in England is far too early and that people may not show respect for social distancing if they sense they can relax their behaviours. I won’t repeat what we both said about our government. 

My runner and I speak on the phone every other day. We discuss scientific know-how - such as the need for test, track, trace but also the need for retest. We agree that tests sent direct to homes would be safest. 

But where we differ is that he manages to keep his weight down whereas I am putting on the pounds. I do have a fitness regime but I know I need to walk. My marathon runner gets his steps in on his stairs. Could I manage 9000 steps a day on our stairs? I doubt it.

At first, back in March and early April, I was going out. I was joining short queues and doing the shopping. I always took my hand sanitiser and my mask in case of difficulties.

But I realised that if I became sick my husband couldn’t look after me as he is suffering from post-surgery depression. I decided to agree with my marathon runner that staying in was best. And I have had excellent support from neighbours, a WhatsApp support group, AgeUK and Compassionate Care. Not because of my needs but because my husband needs a carer for at least up until 2 pm on most days. The only real hitch has been the lack of regular Sainsbury deliveries but that has eased slightly. And the excellent WhatsApp support group has recommended a truly good farm shop delivery service which has lots of deliveries as they were supplying caterers, BandBs and hotels.

What chills me is the tale of our family builder and how quickly his wife succumbed to the virus after she stood in a queue and was coughed over by someone who said they thought they had the virus.

She’s now in a coma, on a ventilator and can just about blink. 
After a few days in critical care she had to go into intensive care - needing a tracheostomy and ventilation. She is now being gradually brought out of the coma after 25 days and is beginning to make some movement so is improving. 

It’s so frightening when it’s someone you know. And my marathan runner was right. If people don’t keep their distance and cough over you the virus becomes a real, real threat.  

It’s simply best not to get too close to anyone. As so few of us have been tested
we don’t know who among us is asympomatic and who may be a carrier. I am staying in, apart from collecting necessities - this week in the form of tomato plants, and medicines. Tomato plants are my husband’s hobby and it may help him. The walk to collect them will do me good as I need to shed the pounds but I will wear my mask. And next week I’ll have to eat less and exercise more. 

I am lucky to have a large house where my ailing husband can have his own bathroom, towels etc and we aren’t on top of each other, getting on each other’s nerves. We are lucky enough to have a large garden and plenty to keep me physically fit and psychologically distracted from the threat. I am lucky to have such helpful neighbours and friends. 

Why, then, am I waking so early in the mornings and thereby feeling knackered mid-afternoon? Is it the bright light piercing the bedroom drapes? Is it having lists of things to do in my head making me hyper-vigilant? Is it because I’m not doing any swimming and I have excess energy? Is it anxiety? Is it because the temperatures have dropped and my bladder knows it? Is it because I know I need to ring the pharmacy for Richard’s repeat prescription? Is it because we have a delivery most days and I have to be up and awake for that?Or a mixture of all of the above?

I wish I could sleep longer. Most of all I wish my husband was well and we knew who, outside our front door, had had the virus and who was immune. We have a right to feel safe. 

It’s a fine balance. And every man, woman and child for themselves.

Tuesday 5 May 2020

Who cares for the carers?

It has been an eye-opening and demanding half year for me. On September 23rd last year Richard had a psychotic episode. It followed a series of surgical procedures and medical appointments which resulted in his anxiety going overboard. By December, despite family visiting and helping out over four extended stays with us, and Richard making a journey with them to Cornwall to give me a break, his psychiatrist declared that the meds he was on  had no more useful job to do. He was not getting substantially better.

For the month up to Twelfth Night I grappled with a new medication regime that changed weekly. Thank goodness we weren’t in lockdown then. The strain, after three and a half months of Richard’s anxiety and depression and the added burden of being his cook, housekeeper, nurse and carer, would have been too much if I’d had to queue in the cold outside our pharmacy, every week, for a different batch of pills.

Gradually, during January and February, the low time of the year, Richard began cooking and painting again. By March 14th - my birthday - he was confident about travelling to Devon. He enjoyed my birthday treats in a lovely hotel by the sea front. We met friends, had a smashing time, enjoyed birthday cake and did some shopping on the way back to Bath. Back then we felt some of the reports of the effects of covid-19 seemed OTT but we religiously washed our hands, easy when it is your birthday and you can happily sing two verses of ‘Happy birthday to you.’ Except I was singing ‘ me’ for the statutory twenty seconds.

At that time there was no social distancing and no wearing of masks. But we knew the virus was coming. 

And Richard’s treatment was working. He was going to our local shop, the pharmacy, to see friends and to GP appointments. And on his own. 

Then wham! 

The local shop shut without warning.
The pharmacy and surgery introduced distancing and familiar faces became alien in masks and visors.

Richard took to his bed. His anxiety resurfaced. His progress retreated. All that was good for him - mixing, enjoying going to the pub, shopping locally - were denied him. He didn’t want to go out. He stopped cooking, painting and taking an interest in the garden. I wrote to Boris Johnson about the effects on the mental health of the over-seventies in enforced lockdown. I have received no reply. I tweeted that we needed a public inquiry into this government’s handling of the crisis in the UK. That was in the second half of March. Now the cry for a public inquiry makes the headlines in tomorrow’s  newspapers.

And now, on May 6th, our country’s death rate from covid-19 is the highest in Europe. We still don’t have a substantial testing, track and trace system in place. Mutterings about Brexit and coming out of lockdown are happening alongside our worst national crisis for many decades and internationally we are beyond a joke as a nation. 

Meanwhile Richard has mown the lawn and cooked. He hasn’t restarted his painting but he sold a few of his fine art cards from our gate - at a distance - at the weekend.

When I watch ‘The King’s Speech’ and scenes of Queen Elizabeth comforting King George VI around the time of the abdication it shows how strong a wife can be for a man who fears for his role in life. When Richard had to go to hospital for a routine check - during lockdown - he said he was terrified. He had a very kindly driver from AgeUK who looked after him.
In fact going to see a nurse on his own gave him some confidence and his hours in bed have substantially decreased since then. ( I had a bad bout of hayfever and couldn’t accompany him.) I rang him several times during his hospital visit to check he didn’t feel overwhelmed, ensured he had his medical notes, wore his mask and gloves, used his sanitiser and took a bottle of water. I was caring at a distance but caring nonetheless. 

George VI must have felt terror trying to give a speech as King back in 1937. But he had a caring wife. I don’t like being called a ‘carer’ but in order for Richard to get over his anxiety and depression I do need to support him. In lockdown who else is there? At least we don’t have a press or public making demands of us and we can live quietly, unlike the Royals.
And bravery plays its part.

If I’m a carer I wonder how our government has been caring in the recent and more distant past for its people. Ten years of austerity, running down the NHS, the boasting of Brexit as a cure for our ills and unpreparedness for the pandemic have led to a divided country. The poorest are dying. Isn’t it time we got rid of class distinction in the UK? It does not serve our care workers who are paid and trained badly. They are poorly equipped against covid-19. 70,000 civilian deaths occurred in the UK during the six years of World War 2. 30,000 deaths have occurred in approximately two months from covid-19. This is shocking by anyone’s standards.

Who is doing the caring in our government? Who cares about our people? Who cares for the carers?