I tried to go back to sleep but it eluded me and I lay, wide eyed, staring at the gray morning light until the radio alarm started blaring out the day's news. I don't know why I start the day with Radio 4 Today. It usually ensures I am bad tempered and/or despairing before I have cleaned my teeth. This morning was no exception.
In some hideous coincidence the day my grandfather died in the home we, his family, had put him in, a decision made heavily, with grief, over a long period of time, this was the day Jeremy Hunt decided to lecture society about how we care for our elderly.
Too many elderly he says, are isolated and alone. It's the fault of the selfish children and grandchildren who abandon them to indifferent care. We should emulate other cultures and bring them into our homes and care for them with love and respect.
There are so many things I want to say in response to this that there is no blog long enough. I will just mention the complete care crisis that contributes to this loneliness, a crisis caused by chronic underfunding and the privatisation of services. I will mention the huge pressure on families often separated geographically because we must go where the jobs are, on the women, and they are mostly women, working, caring for children and grandchildren and responsible for elderly parents. My mother has spent the last eight years shouldering the burden of her parents' care almost totally alone, whilst working and helping me with holiday child care. She is exhausted.I will shake my head in complete shock at his exhortation that we emulate other cultures without considering what that actually means- often unmarried daughters and overworked daughters in law to provide the care. And actually, Mr Hunt, most cultures are finding that globalisation means that they are having exactly the same problems we are.
There are many ways to solve this crisis. Unfortunately for Mr Hunt it means paying carers living wages, an end to zero hours contracts, and putting money back into the community. It means supporting families as they make these difficult decisions, not berating them as they do so. I wanted my grandfather to die peacefully in his own bed after a hale, hearty life, not curled up in a hospital bed in a nursing home. Could I, or my mother, or my sister have provided that care at home? Even if I didn't need to work it would have been impossible. He needed professional care.
I wrote the following on this blog two years ago. This was my grandfather:
Today I went to visit my grandfather, Papa. He lives in a home and has dementia and it breaks my heart.
When I was a child he seemed preternaturally strong despite his short stature; if I linked my hands around his forearms he could flex his arms and lift me right off the ground. He could lift two grandchildren at once. His appetite was legendary, plates piled sky-high to be masticated slowly and thoroughly before equally massive second helpings. And then pudding.
As I grew older I realised we approached things from a very different direction. He was a small town business man with conservative views (big and small c) who enjoyed country sports and belonged to all those men-only clubs that small town business men belong to. I have only rarely seen him without a tie and tweed jacket. I was (am) a grungy, vegetarian, left wing feminist. But he was my Papa and I loved visiting him, especially at his summer home in Nefyn, on the Lleyn Peninsula, where we would eat macaroons, go for long mountain walks and play scrabble long into the evening. And he would talk.
My Papa was a born storyteller. He always told us that he married Nana because she dug a pit in the woods and wouldn't let him out until he agreed to marry her; as a gullible six year old I reported this story as fact in a school report. During those long nights in Nefyn, or at the family home in Lincolnshire, he would tell me ghost stories. All true, he insisted, he may have been a keen walker and naturalist but he had a real belief in the spiritual world. Thirty years younger and I am sure he'd have been on Most Haunted. Or he'd tell me about his youth, cycling from Lincolnshire to Nefyn, sleeping in haystacks on the way, his post-war days in Germany working in the army stores where he met a beautiful, auburn haired German girl (my Nana) who he promptly married and brought home to Wandsworth. Tales of a boyhood roaming the Lincolnshire countryside. He brought the past alive.
His real flair though was for storytelling. His bedtime stories were fantastic. My family moved to Kent when I was 13, my sister 12. It was the first time I hadn't lived in the same town as my grandparents and I missed them horribly so when they came to stay it was really special. And Papa told us bed time stories even when I was 16 and my sister 15, we wouldn't let him stop. Quite unashamed and unabashed we demanded the next instalment of his Romney Marsh saga that starred us, our cottage and our cats, stories that combined adventure, magic and heroism like all the best children's' stories do. I still love childrens' and YA literature, done well story telling at its best.
He never wrote them down. He wrote poems - rhyming, scanning doggerel, he painted pretty landscapes, he answered every circular or invite with a letter like the gentleman he was, but he never wrote down his stories. And that's a shame and a real loss. Now he never will, dementia is a horrible, horrible thing.