Five months ago my mother did what every daughter dreads; she fell and broke her hip (the precise medical term is a fracture of the neck of the femur). Our experience of the National Health Service was very different from the headline revelations in the newspapers at the time.
She was initially taken by ambulance to her local hospital, and was then transferred a few hours later to St Mary’s in Paddington for surgery. We made jokes that the hospital transport was in conjunction with DHL, but she arrived safely, was not lost in transit and arrived on time. In spite of tales of doom to the contrary, the operation to pin her hip took place on a Saturday, she survived the weekend and by the following Monday she was being attended by physiotherapists attempting to re-mobilise her. It was a slow process, but she was eventually discharged from hospital two weeks after her initial admission with a package of three home carers per day. The local council in conjunction with the hospital also supplied a frame around the lavatory, a commode for use in the bedroom (to save walking to the bathroom at night) and fitted a rail to the side of the bed. The Zimmer frame that came home with her was a godsend.
The hard work began once she was back in her own flat, which is luckily on the ground floor. The first carer arrived around 7.30am on the day after discharge. Unfortunately mum was not completely wide awake when the bell rang and she managed to fall on her way to opening the front door. The paramedics were again summoned but no damage had been done so she wasn’t taken back to hospital.
From then on the daily visits were shared by the three carers: one in the morning to help her up, get washed and dressed (initially it was just to change one nightdress for another one), get her something to eat and prompt her to take her medication. The lunchtime carer saw to food and medication, and the evening carer took charge of a strip wash and change of night-clothes, as well as reminding her to take her pills. In addition my sister and I visited every day for more than three weeks, fussing over her like mother hens and attending to every other need, and probably doing far more than we should. We actually overdid what was necessary and encouraged more dependency than we should have, but that wasn’t apparent until sometime further down the line.
One thing we soon became aware of is of how dedicated the home carers are. They are paid disgustingly: not much more than the minimum wage and do not receive any payment when travelling between jobs. The majority rely on public transport and some of them work 12 hours a day just to earn enough to live on. The media is now drawing attention to the practice by many companies of zero hours contracts; most of these carers, who are employed by agencies, fall into that category. Our capitalist society values productivity and financial gain over care and compassion. In a country where the older population is outgrowing the younger members of the community this is a sorry state of affairs that should be addressed at government level. Most of us will become old or infirm in later life and the value attached to human beings and the care they need is far more important than money made, squandered or gambled by bankers and businesses. Every housebound elderly person is or was somebody’s mother or father, aunt or uncle, brother or sister and deserves to be treated as a person who matters and should be regarded with dignity and respect.
In addition to the package outlined above, mum was also assigned a care coordinator (as part of the re-enablement service) and received weekly visits from a physiotherapist. Unfortunately my stubborn, Taurian mother disregarded a lot of what the healthcare professional told her and neglected to do her exercises unless nagged. The result is that after five months she has still not regained full mobility in her right leg and remains dependent on us. After five months, journeys outside of the home are a struggle that exhaust her and tire us. She insists that her legs work, when they obviously don’t, hates using the two sticks that have been provided and insists that she can walk better with one. Although her GP and her physiotherapist have patiently explained the benefits to her, her mobility and her balance of using the pair, it is an uphill battle. She flatly refused to use the three-wheeled walker that was supplied and argues against going out in the portable wheelchair that I acquired from a friend.
Thanks to healthier diets and better healthcare we are all living longer. Older daughters (and sons), such as my sister and myself, will fall into the roles of our parent’s carers as long as we are fit and healthy enough to do so. Twenty-first century parent/child role reversal seems to be here to stay.