All the World's a Stage

Three weeks ago I was in the land of make-believe, singing and dancing on a London stage. This morning I stood in the shower, fully clothed, washing my mother, naked and sobbing, after she had an accidental bowel movement. It is as big an adjustment as I will ever have to make, I think. To borrow a line from one of her favourite films: “When you’re a secretary in a brewery, it’s pretty hard to make-believe you’re anything else. Everything is beer.”

All I am, when I am with her, is her son. Nothing more, nothing less. I am the supporting actor of her Act III; she the protagonist of my Act II. Life is inescapable and also deeply tender.

I am always surprised when people say “you’re so brave” or “I don’t know how you manage it”. We have looked after our young, our sick and our elderly for millennia – much longer than we’ve had currencies or composed symphonies, or even believed in deities. What I am doing is, in actual fact, entirely ordinary. All that was required was to disengage my overactive, self-obsessed, 21st-century brain and allow it to happen. It is what is in our DNA: love and compassion – not selfishness, not envy, not hate, not a desire for profit. When the time comes and one has to step up, that much becomes crystal clear.

We must talk about it. We must share our stories, without shame. Sharing our stories is therapy for the individual carer and support for others in a similar position. It helps develop a collective understanding and a body of coping strategies. This year alone in the UK an estimated 116,000 people will have to leave or significantly adjust work in order to care for someone with dementia. To be silent, to hide our elderly people away, is to condemn millions to the joyless torpor of merely awaiting death in isolation.

There are still gold nuggets to be found in the deepest, thickest sludge. Don’t miss them by looking too far back or too far forward.

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd. 2014

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