In sickness and in health: what sort of carer will be you be?

October 11, 2015

“I want a Chinese husband,” I tell my partner of 30 years when he arrives at the hospital to see me at 2 pm. “He’s been here since 8 am. He sits by her bedside for 12 hours straight,” I admonish.

We look over at the elderly couple in the bay opposite in the Intensive Care Unit. She’s so sick; he’s as silent and stalwart as Buddha. I realise he’s hardly said a word to her, or touched her. He sits vigil while adult sons and daughters lift silver flasks of magic potions to her lips, and make her smile.

In sickness and in health, we have our different ways of caring; it’s an extension of who we are, how we love, and our culture.

Here I am plunged into sickness again, having fooled myself for aeons I’m a healthy person: no colds, no flu, no allergies, and no weight problems; don’t smoke, hardly drink. It’s no, no, no all the way down the list of symptoms and troubles on hospital admission forms. Metal parts? No. Not one.

Except for the big C, I’d be a paragon of health. First there was breast cancer in 1997, and long after it was beaten, a primary lung cancer in 2014. And now the lung cancer is back.

My husband, fit and active, foresaw a wonderful retirement with me, a new phase of adventure, travels, and learning. But he’s plunged into carer role again while I’m recuperating from brain surgery, and pain, and preparing for whatever lies ahead. It will get better than this.

So he comes at 2 pm when the week’s shopping is done with the help of our adult sons who live at home. The washing’s been hung out as usual. Saturday, for some reason, has remained our busy domestic day even in retirement. When he comes, we talk non-stop until we run dry; about two hours. I don’t want him sitting vigil for 12. This is how we are.

When I’m taken from intensive care to the 4-bed neurological ward, I see others who sit the vigil. The lovely, young girlfriend lies in her fellow’s arms on the bed, and they watch television, and consult their iPhones all afternoon, whispering occasional sweet nothings. He was king-hit on the dance floor and is very groggy. His Dad sits beside the bed, saying little, as if he’s taken root in the hard, hospital chair.

To be honest, I’ve never thought of myself as a natural carer: casserole-maker, advocate, and masseuse who could sit 12 hours. I was more for a cup of tea, and getting to the heart of grief and hope, but perhaps not so practical in a crisis.

But my husband turns out to be a wonderful carer, selfless and emotional in equal parts, unequivocally on my side. He’s pushy enough to get me to Emergency when needed, then respectful of the doctors and nurses. He knows it’s important they like me. He’s my advocate, my note-taker, patient, kind. He sits long enough for me. I have faith in his caring.

Australia has 2.86 million informal carers, according to a recent report for Carers Australia by Deloitte Access Economics – parents looking after children with disabilities and mental illness; husbands looking after wives with dementia; wives looking after husbands with failing hearts; adult children caught in the maw of elder care with its constant crises. Their ‘free’ services are worth $60.3 billion a year.

“I don’t know how they do it,” an outsider may say of this selfless army.  But they can’t do it alone. They need subsidised government services, home care, palliative care, respite, and flexible leave arrangements from work. Demand for care is at an all time high and set to increase but fewer carers will be available, the report says.

Most people do not drop dead on the tennis court at 70. The end comes slowly and carers need to draw on deep wells of private and public support over the long haul. As individuals, and in the provision of government services, we must take care of the carers so they don’t go under. When cutting government services, take care.

Unless it happens to you, you don’t know what selflessness you’re capable of. Some people never rise to the occasion. Most of us probably do – wipe bottoms, change sheets, pulverise carrots, and share whatever fellowship lies ahead. You do it for the one you love as they would gladly do it for you. And you count yourself lucky if you are loved.

My house is full of casseroles and flowers again. I wish it weren’t so. But just for the moment, it’s nice to be cared for.

What’s your experience of caring and being cared for? Please comment.

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