Not cool.

This is not a cool subject matter. So if you’re the kind of sub-zero person who knows about cool restaurants and trends before they even exist, maybe back away now.

For those of you still here, let’s go:
How often do you think about getting ill, really ill? How often do you think about getting old, maybe getting dementia? Have you got a back-up in place for if that happens? Who would look after you?

Last Friday I spent a day volunteering at an old people’s home in Peckham. Many of the residents there had dementia; it was a repetitive afternoon, going over the same conversations on a five minute loop. One wheelchair-bound woman, devastatingly, didn’t know where she was. She would ask why she wasn’t at home, in Lewisham, and start sobbing when nobody could give her an answer. Worse, she would attempt to get away, before realising that “my legs don’t work”. She then started crying all over again, at the realisation that she couldn’t even walk away. This happened hundreds of times a day, as she forgot the information she’d been given after just a few minutes. The care staff who took the time to reassure her time after time, day after day, are nothing short of angels.

Today the problems were closer to home. My grandmother, chief whip of the local council and full-time carer of my ninety year old grandfather, had left six voicemails on my mobile. Tucking into my weekend brunch, I hadn’t seen the calls. You know six missed calls is not good news. She told me that she’d done her back in, and was completely immobile.

Getting to the house in the first place took three times as long as usual. The northern line was down, so I took a bus, waited for a train, took that, then waited for a bus, sat on that for half an hour, then another train. At the other end there were no taxis at the rank; the next one would be in fifteen minutes, according to the surly woman at the minicab office. I walked. Two hours after picking up the voicemail I arrived at my grandparents’ house.

My gran not only works long hours for the council, but also does a full-time job at home. She bathes, dresses, cooks for and feeds my grandad. She does the housework, gets the shopping, doles out medication according to a timetable that only she knows. Stepping into her shoes is no mean feat.

Over the years I’ve got into the groove of their daily rhythm of life. I know what time meals are served, I know about morning and afternoon tea times. I know that straight after lunch my Grandad has half a large cup of coffee and that after dinner he has one small cup. I know that he has his sandwiches with peeled cucumber and the crusts taken off for lunch, and that for dinner the vegetables should be overdone to the point of sogginess. But there’s a hell of a lot I don’t know.

He can’t help me either. My gran is the only person who knows which of his cornucopia of pills he takes when. Without her, we’re both lost.

Bit by bit, to begin with I can do it. I remember to peel the cucumber, to cut the crusts off. I remember the half cup of coffee. After his afternoon nap, I remember to warm the pot before adding the tea leaves. I remember brew-five-minutes-milk-in-first. Bit by bit, no sweat. By late afternoon, though, I’m exhausted. I’ve done nothing but prepare the food, wash up, make tea, prepare the food, wash up, make tea. I’ve fitted nothing else into the day. How does gran hold down a manic, time-consuming job as well?

By evening, I’m struggling. I forget to skin the fish, to check for bones. I forgot to add salt to the vegetables, or to cook the broccoli and carrots in separate saucepans. I don’t know what time to bring the milk drink to his study later that evening. Now I’m worrying about how he’ll get ready for bed. Gran normally brings his morning tea at 6:45. Then helps him wash and dress. I’m scared.

With Gran upstairs, zonked out with hardcore painkillers, I’ve got no one to ask. I’m on my own now, and it’s difficult. And lonely. It’s a full-time job; it’s exhausting, and I’m twenty-five, not in my seventies. I’m worried that they don’t have back-up. Then I realise: I’m the back-up. It’s me.

I know other people like my gran. People who look after elderly people with dementia, or a disabled brother, or a husband who’s had a stroke and needs round the clock care. I honestly don’t know how they do it. It takes the patience of a saint, the energy of an Olympian. These carers are heroes. So I’ll ask again. How often do you think about getting ill, really ill? How often do you think about getting old, maybe getting dementia? Have you got a back-up in place for if that happens? Who would look after you?

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