No rubbish, our kid, you get the good stuff here.
I would like to make clear that I am not writing about the meaning of life. That is something completely different, as explained by Monty Python. Neither is this the answer to life the universe and everything. Douglas Adams had his finger on that one and it’s 42.
No, what I would like to reveal today is the secret of life. Just. As you do, well, I do.
I’m hoping it will be helpful to all readers, such things occasionally are. Most of all I hope it will be helpful to carers, who could do with every weapon available in their personal arsenal to help them to fight back against what sometimes seems overwhelming odds.
Carers are various. In my life I have been an adult carer looking after the next generation up who were suddenly getting into dreadful difficulties with long term fatal disease. Stepping in to help, as opposed to running away is something I have applauded and encouraged for eleven years in this column. Our lives consist of time, we only have a finite resource of it. Giving it to someone else is easily the most generous thing anyone can do.
Other carers, of whom I know increasing numbers as I age myself, are people looking after life partners as those partners succumb to the diseases of age. Of course what I have written about here is dementia, which has mushroomed in all advanced societies round the world, causing desperate problems financial, practical and emotional and frequently causing illnesses of various varieties due to stress, financial hardship and just sheer exhaustion on behalf of the carer. But other frailties of age can equally, suddenly cast one partner into the caring role.
Yet other carers are children, there are about a million child carers in the UK currently. Children who come home from school and start caring for an adult in their household in every way possible.
And there are parent carers. People who have children with such needs that they will never be able to leave home and live independently. These parents are people who worry all the time about what will happen to their children when they, the parents, die.
None of these circumstances are new in human history. What is new is developments in medical science that mean that babies born with great disabilities, who would have died in past times are now able to survive and live a normal life span. Medical developments that mean that adults contracting dreadful diseases, who would have suffered just a few years and died are now able to continue, still with the diseases and the difficulties they cause for many years.
In these columns any ethical considerations of such advances are not mine to expound. I am a survivor twice of cancer thanks to medical advances and I am a survivor of the surgery twice that saved my life, that had to be corrected with more surgery, in one case sixty-two years after the original surgery that caused the problems but saved my life. I am glad to be here and have a ton more stuff that I would like to do, and make and write.
What I write of here is my personal experience of the caring role, not to tell anyone what to do. Each person’s life is their own and we are all here to discover what we can do. I simply offer support for those times when life is so awful and what seems to be expected of you is so far beyond your previous experience that you don’t know where to turn for support or comfort. I have told you what I did, or what people whom I know did and how it turned out for them, and you can read and decide if any of that helps you.
I first came upon the caring role in my third year of life. My parents had good friends whose third son was born with Downes Syndrome. I grew up with this child and played with him and spent time with the family. He is the reason that when my future husband told me he had inherited Downes Syndrome in his family I didn’t run a mile. I knew it could be lived with and that someone with the syndrome could be a family member. Before the Second World War the number of Downes Syndrome children who survived to adulthood was limited to those whose immune systems were better developed than others. My playmate tended to get virus infections very badly and be extremely ill but was saved by the availability of numerous antibiotics that were developed after the war. His father had been one of the few that battled for Britain in an aeroplane, he was a very brave man. By far the bravest thing he did was in his old age. His wife had died, his other two children had grown and married. To save them and let them live their lives he sold the beautiful, extensive home fit for a hero that he had lived in and moved into a tiny caravan to provide the money for his last son to be cared for in a nice home, no matter how long he lived for.
I once stayed in a caravan in North Yorkshire in winter. I was there for a week and it took a couple of months to stop being ill and get warmed through again.
The secret of life I envisaged under the influence of laughing gas, which I promise you isn’t funny at all if you are having a tooth extracted, as I was at the age of sixteen. The tooth, which was central in my jaw, had died after being struck by a ball and developed an abscess. I don’t recall the ball but I remember vividly the pain of the abscess being such that I was quite keen to rip my face off.
Out of it while the tooth came out of it, I had a vision and a voice said ‘THIS IS THE SECRET OF LIFE’. Excellent! How helpful and unlooked-for under the circumstances. I saw an oval bed covered in bright yellow silk. (This is me we’re talking about, I’m not going to have a down-market vision, now, am I?) On the bed curled head to toe like commas were a man and a woman. And that was it, because it was quite a quick extraction.
Great, so now I knew the secret of life or, as I called it until I got dental braces, the secfet of fife.
But what did it mean? Was I meant to go into homewares retailing? Be a marriage celebrant? Check my writing for absent punctuation?
Some years later, in a book, I came across the Yin Yang symbol and recognised it immediately. An acid yellow circle with head to toe comma shapes imposed. What did it mean?
Balance. The secret of life is balance. For every down there is an up. For every wrong, a right. For work, repose. For tears, laughter.
They don’t necessarily follow one upon the next at speed. You know from your own life that you can bump along the bottom for years before the upturn. Life is a rollercoaster and you don’t get off until you have experienced the thrills and spills, every one.
That in itself is a help to know and has helped me in my life constantly. Knowing that no situation is forever and that you just have to stick it out until the change comes, is a great fortification against woe. The only constant in the universe is change.
For the carer, stuck in a seemingly unwinnable situation, balance is the thing to seek actively in order not to fall out of the rollercoaster before the end of the ride.
Does this mean that in order to survive yourself and be there in the future for your cared-for person, that they have to go into a care home so you can attend to your own needs? Yes, it might well be the case.
Part of the search for balance is discovering your own capabilities. You can only do what you can do.
The welfare of the pair, carer and cared-for includes both. As I have written often, placing the welfare of the carer above the cared-for sometimes for as long as is necessary to restore the balance, is not a bad thing. If the carer burns out the cared-for will end up in a care home anyway except without the carer to visit them, if they have died.
Working out how to restore the balance in your life is what life is about. It is completely individual. Making sure there is balance in your life before you run into difficulties is a very good idea. Someone who gets up in the morning and sits down for the rest of the day, ordering people about, as my mother frequently did, is not living a very balanced life.
Someone who lives on takeaway meals, someone who exercises to exhaustion, someone who works twelve hours a day, seven days a week, are people not living balanced lives. You can only weight the seesaw so far before it springs up again, flinging you off.
I cannot tell you what is right and balanced for you, you have to work it out for yourself. I have often written about facing the realities, getting to grips with what help is available and finding out about stuff rather than burying your head in the sand and hoping it will go away. Such actions actively seek to redress the imbalance imposed by the sudden descent of an awful occurrence, whether ill health or any other terrible life happening.
Being brave enough to do whatever needs to be done but in an intelligent way, after thought, is a demonstration that learning is occurring and that progress is being made. It might even indicate that we are acquiring wisdom as we live.
Wisdom is another thing altogether. Good gracious, I can’t tell you about wisdom.
All I can tell you is the secret of life.