Hugh Reilly: Carers are our unsung heroes

Looking after elderly relatives can be tiring and frustrating but we do it out of love. However, we still have our own lives to live, writes Hugh Reilly

Cycle of life turns heavily when we have to take care of our parents. Picture: Getty
Cycle of life turns heavily when we have to take care of our parents. Picture: Getty

When I retired from teaching in August 2011, aged just 55, I had great plans to travel the world, savour different cultures and enjoy the last year or two of my life (I had a G21 postcode). Unfortunately, my mother had other ideas. As a divorced man with time on his hands, I more than adequately met her criteria for the vacant position of full-time unpaid carer; that I lived only 500 yards away and held a clean driving licence served to add to my suitability.

To be fair, I wasn’t exactly a novice at attending to her needs. In 2003, my wife and I decided that the “Till death us do part” angle of the wedding vows seemed a tad macabre, hence we opted to separate before one of us hit on homicide as a pathway out of our failing marriage. For reasons that still escape me, I earnestly believed that moving in with mater until I sorted out alternative living arrangements was a prudent step in the maelstrom of the familial upheaval.

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Within days of seamlessly slipping into the role of Norman Bates, I realised I’d made an error of judgment. Having endured the solitude of widowhood for well-nigh 15 years, mother was a tad reluctant to embrace the notion of another human being, albeit her own flesh and blood, disrupting her routine. My sins were profound and manifold. For example, I apparently sulked when she hogged the television from 6pm till 10:30pm. To be honest, my moodiness only increased when, although only two-door and blue in colour, my Citroen Saxo was perceived to be a meter-free Hackney taxi available on a 24/7 basis.


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After three years of cohabitation, I thought I had secured an extended period of respite when I purchased a nearby ex-council house using my pension lump sum. At least now I could seek sanctuary when it all became too much. Sadly, my early retirement package coincided with a sharp decline in her physical health. My telephone became a hotline for her to relay concerns regarding her deteriorating wellbeing. I became the go-to guy when paperwork needed sorting out or phone calls were required to be made to social services, the council tax office, Glasgow Housing Association, BT and the Department of Work and Pensions. I was the stoic sounding-board for stories on a loop about her school days or working on a farm during the Second World War. Fetching her groceries and doing the more labour-intensive elements of housework grew to be an integral part of my week.

Only someone who has cared for an elderly parent appreciates how frustrating it can be. It drove me insane that I had to repeat pieces of conversation because mum stubbornly refused to wear expensive hearing aids that would afford her binaural hearing. Like many of the generation who suffered hunger and poverty, my mum insisted on having her fridge, freezer and cupboards stuffed to the gunnels with food. I tell you truly – she could outperform Jesus in feeding a multitude at short notice.

It was depressing to listen time and again to a loved one yearning to die and be out of “this terrible world”, though, to be fair, I suppose watching rolling news reports of war, Ebola and Kate Middleton’s pregnancy has that effect on most housebound folk. In those dark moments, it was positively inviting to remind her that a violent interface with a nearby overnight freight train would make her death-wish come true.

Carers face the dilemma of when to help an ageing parent and when to let the individual get on with things by themselves. Social workers discouraged me from overly helping my mum lest she became de-skilled and dependent on assistance: the catchphrase “use it or lose it” entered my lexicon, much to mother’s displeasure, it must be said.

When going outdoors, rather than permit her to cling to me like a barnacle on a boat, I’d cut her adrift and watch her shuffle to my car with the aid of a foldable stick. On arriving at the local supermarket, she’d place her disability badge of honour atop the dashboard before egressing, ever so slowly, from the vehicle. A £1 coin transformed a trolley into a de facto zimmer frame as she trundled into the store. This tough love extended to giving her the freedom to meander the aisles of the supermarket without me in shopping-chaperone mode.

Deep down, I think she appreciated that remaining active and as independent as possible was the surest guarantee of not befalling the awful fate that haunts most pensioners, that is, being admitted to a care home. My mother witnessed the speedy decline in health of her older sister, Jean, on entering a residential home. Jean’s dementia had led to my cousin being given power of attorney over her affairs and, following a court order, the state took responsibility for my ageing aunt as she was a danger to herself. It was all a little too late. Drug addicts in the area had already taken advantage of her, posing as her friends while robbing her of cash and jewellery. I reported the incidents to the police but, given the random nature of the offences, they were unable to prevent further thefts.

I cared for mother out of love but also due to an overwhelming feeling of obligation; after all, society decrees that a son who doesn’t sacrifice his life for his mother deserves the equivalent of a white feather pinned to his jacket lapel.

However, as selfish as it may sound to some people, I have only one shot at life. That’s why I’m relaxed about the fact that I’ve set up home in Spain. I haven’t abandoned my mother – I fly back every six weeks or so to visit her. When it’s time to leave her house for the airport, I feel guilty, but I know that if I stayed I’d probably end up resenting the situation.

The baton of care has been taken up by my brother (plus greater involvement from social services), although there are limits to what he can do due to work and family commitments.

In my opinion, carers are the unsung heroes of our society.


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