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I should probably start by saying Happy New Year – and then apologise for being absent on the blogging front for so long last year. I, like many others, am sincerely hoping that 2022 will be a huge improvement on the last two years, which have been disastrous, not only on the mass humanitarian front with Covid and its associated woes, but also on a personal front. Some of you may be aware that my father, now 88, has been struggling with his mental health since just before Covid struck in March 2020, but, sadly, it was my mother, his main carer, who passed away very suddenly in November 2021. Let me begin by explaining the back story behind recent events and then in another post I’ll set down my strategies for coping with these additional caring responsibilities. I know from colleagues and social media that I’m not the only one facing work-life balance challenges in the later stages of my career….

Despite having coped with the lockdowns for much of last year without too many issues, my father’s mental health deteriorated still further in February of last year, with recurring depressive episodes resulting in 999 calls and visits to hospital. I suspect there were many more crises that I didn’t get to hear about as my mum was of the generation who grit their teeth, keep a stiff upper lip and soldier on. She took the view that she’d married for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, and felt it was a sign of weakness to give in and ask for help, even from her daughters sometimes. When she did call out to us, it was often when she herself was under the weather, usually with intermittent stomach pains that had previously been diagnosed as gallbladder problems. With Covid raging and in-person GP appointments like hen’s teeth, she was usually diagnosed over-the-phone antibiotics or (worse) laxatives and recovered with careful diet management, avoiding anything too rich or dairy products. We tried so hard to get her to go for further tests, but she was adamant that she didn’t need to – and it’s nigh on impossible to make someone do something they don’t want to, even if you think it’s in their best interests. And of course, the current health climate means nobody really wants to visit hospital if they don’t have to…

Mum and Dad pre-lockdown Mother's day lunch 2020

The upshot of all this is that she ended up going to A&E with severe abdominal swelling and acute stomach pain in mid-October. As it happened, it was the very day I returned from my epic trip to North America to be reunited with my younger son and daughter-in-law and finally meet my newest granddaughter, born in New England in June. My sister had held the fort during the five weeks of my absence and my parents had seemingly been fine all the time I was away. Mum was keen for me to go; she, if anyone, knew how much it means to be with family. She adored her first great-granddaughter, Zoë, and was so looking forward to meeting Baby Emma when restrictions allowed. I ended up going to Canada for two weeks before I was permitted to enter the US, hence my five weeks away – bliss at the time (multiple PCR tests and associated anxiety notwithstanding!) but little did I know what was waiting for me when I got back…

Emma and Zoe colour_cropped

I’m not going into all the agonising details of the next three weeks, suffice to say that she died three weeks later and was ultimately diagnosed as having metastatic cancer, i.e. it had spread throughout her internal organs. Who knows whether an earlier diagnosis would have helped? Possibly not at the age of 86, and we can only be glad that her suffering was relatively short in the end, although it felt devastating at the time, both for Mum herself and for us as bystanders. At least we had a brief time to come to terms with her imminent loss and to say the things we wanted to say – I know many people don’t have that opportunity, especially over the past two years… My sister, nieces and I spent Mum’s last few days at her bedside, doing crosswords, chatting and reminiscing, and I know Mum was aware we were there, even if she didn’t say a lot. I was lucky enough to be there the afternoon she died and am very grateful to the lovely nurses for it being as pain-free and peaceful as possible. And for opening the window when she died “to let her spirit free” – something I can’t think of even now without welling up. Rest in peace, Mum.

Mum thoughtful pose at 80th lunch

In the meantime, we’d had to take the difficult decision to move my father into respite care as he needs full-time supervision. My sister and I had taken it in turn to stay in the house with him during the first week of Mum’s hospital stay, but it was soon apparent that it was impossible to do anything other than look after him – work just wasn’t an option as he doesn’t understand the concept of working remotely, let alone Zoom calls or even talking on the phone. Neither of us is in a position to retire any time soon and moving him to live with us wouldn’t have been the right answer either.

Then there were the problems of visiting Mum with him; obviously he wanted to see her, but, thanks to Covid, there was only supposed to be one named visitor per patient. Obviously, my father couldn’t go on his own as he no longer drives and needed a wheelchair to cover the miles of hospital corridors to get to the ward! If we accompanied him, we had to stay outside in the corridor while he was in with Mum, but neither of them could hear each other very clearly due to mask-wearing. Then Dad wouldn’t remember what she’d said afterwards for us to find out whether she needed anything or how she really felt. After being his carer for so long, there was no way Mum would have given him the true picture… Although she did have an iPhone, reception was patchy and connecting to the hospital Wifi not straightforward, so it was tricky to speak to her otherwise. The nurses did exercise discretion, thank goodness, and we were often allowed to put our heads in for a quick word before leaving, but it certainly wasn’t ideal.

Fortunately, we’d visited a local care home in the summer, thinking Mum might need to go into hospital for tests, if we could ever persuade her. We managed to arrange respite care there relatively quickly, thank goodness. Neither my sister or I slept the night before we told my father what we’d arranged, but his psychologist suggested we stress the positives and switch the emphasis to it being his turn to help Mum – which worked beautifully. And wonder of wonders, he met a chap he’d known for years from the Probus retired businessmen’s club that first afternoon. It’s not all been plain sailing, but I have to say he has settled really well and is much more stimulated and engaged than I’ve seen him for a long time. He has always been a sociable man and the past two years of Covid-induced isolation have been hard for him, along with deteriorating health and the sense of not being in control of his own destiny. We have now signed a permanent contract with the home, a lovely place where the staff have endless reserves of kindness and patience. He loves the food, the company and the fact that there is always someone different to talk to, to say nothing of visiting dogs and even a large pig called Blanket (what else?!). The home is located midway between my sister and me, so convenient for visiting. Now we just need the restrictions to ease so more members of the family can visit, but I suspect that won’t be for a while yet.

Dad meeting his new great-granddaughter

I’m still wading through estate admin for my mother and the lengthy process of registering power of attorney for my father with all the various institutions. Dealing with the house will come later, but it has certainly been a challenging end to the year. I’ve worked very little since flying out to Canada in early September and am only now hoping to resume working anything approaching full-time this month.

As I mentioned at the outset, my aim with this post had been to share my coping strategies, and especially my hard-won tips for navigating the care/support system for the elderly in the UK, but that will have to wait for next time. Wishing anyone going through similar life events much strength and comfort. My family, friends and colleagues have been wonderful throughout, and I couldn’t have done it without them.

Mum seated, full skirt wedding