I knew it would happen at some point, of course. But when it did it was still a shock, and terrifically upsetting.
My 77-year-old dad has fallen ill; and I find myself back at my family home caring for him with my mum, sister and brother.
The usual signs of old age became apparent in my parents from their late sixties. Forgetfulness, say, and increasing, then constant, health worries. And although, looking back, one can spot some of the warning signs – as one probably always can – what’s happened to my father still came suddenly, and dramatically.
He’s always been a stoical chap, my dad. Very much a man of his generation, he’s not one for emotional displays or sharing worries. He’s not only held the purse strings but kept them tied very close to his chest. He’s picked us up when the chips have been down. A PE teacher by trade, he loves sport – especially basketball and cricket – and reads and watches the news so avidly that I remember, as a child, growing up in a house where as soon as the BBC teatime news bulletin was over, the TV was switched over to the ITV one; and likewise, the ITV 10 o’clock news was always preceded by the BBC’s 9 o’clock version. (Any time there wasn’t news or sports on, you could normally find him checking both of those things on Ceefax.) Strangely, however, he was never much interested in discussing current affairs or politics. I grew up in a house where news was consumed but never dissected, where (again, fairly typically for his generation) my father would never reveal how he voted.
And although I found it hard to connect with some of these traits when I was growing up – I wasn’t interested in sport, and I was interested in talking about current affairs and emotions – my respect and appreciation for my father has grown and grown over the years. He and my mum have, for example, looked after my eldest, severely learning disabled sister all her life – something which wasn’t the norm for parents of such children in the ‘60s, and which they have done straightforwardly and unquestioningly for 48 years now. My admiration for them for doing this is boundless.
So when a proud, good man such as this is suddenly a shell of himself, suddenly in desperate need of help, it’s not just my – and my brother and other sister’s – instinct to drop everything, but also our duty. This man has looked after us our whole lives, and now it is our turn to look after him. There is something, of course, particularly upsetting in seeing one’s father – the one who most of all has been the strong one, the one to turn to – be so in need of such help. But help is naturally what you do.
And after doing so for just a week so far, my hat goes off to those who care for the elderly on a daily basis. Likewise, I can’t thank the NHS enough for the amazing care my father has received from them. At a time when our health service is in the news for the wrong reasons once again, it feels more important than ever to say: those who work in the NHS so wonderfully, compassionately and effectively, deserve nothing but praise. My father’s treatment has been caring, efficient – and free. And I thank my lucky stars that we live in a country where this is the case.
I knew, as I say, that this would happen at some point in my elderly parents’ lives – that there would come a time when we children would start to look after them. That time is now, and as I sit here typing this in my childhood bedroom (with two old teddy bears staring at me from a shelf), I feel lucky and privileged that I am able to help, and grateful for my amazing siblings. Sitting next to him on the bed the other day, holding his hand, my father said to me: “You’re a good girl”. “That’s because I was well brought up by a good man,” I replied.
Barrie Mann: sports teacher, news-watcher, dad