It’s great to go away, but even better to come home is what i found myself saying upon arriving in Heathrow Airport last Sunday at 5.30am. It’s been a fantastic six week trip for us as a family visiting South Africa, seeing our loved ones, escaping the cold January and replacing it with Blue African skies but nothing quite measures up to being home and with renewed vigour in your tanned stride.
Once we were through our front door, my three and two year old girls ran around screaming with excitement about their toys they clearly forgot they owned. It must have seemed like their Christmas and Birthdays had come all at once such was the pitch and volume of their shrieks, especially for my two year old who has even less concept of time than her older sister. She couldn’t remember where the loo was and i had to remind her.
I have found it strange being away from all that is familiar for an extended period. Luckily, the house was just as we left it but we were different, possibly buoyed by our holiday mojo but our experiences away and together had made us grow, even closer. The girls seem just a little more confident, taller and a little more able.
The next day with our normal lives resumed i went to visit my old Lady Friend, i mentioned before in previous posts ‘Funny how it all falls away’, ‘I’m listening’ and ‘Memories’. I”ve been visiting Penny for an hour each week for well over a year now. During this time we have developed a great affection for one another and i have had the privilege to sit and listen to her talk about her life. I genuinely feel i have become a bonafide confidente.
I don’t think i quite grapsed the great work the Charity that i asked to volunteer for does and how important their work is. In an age of unprecedented connections, loneliness is one of the biggest issues facing the aged. Infact, according to Age UK at least 1 million pensioners go a whole month before they speak to another person, with others citing the television as their main form of company. Incredible. More so when you realise just how important human connection is for the state of our mental health & well being.
I became a befriender initially as a way of giving back and a chance to make a difference to someone with the minimum input. I don’t have to stand in a cold town centre shaking a charity box or organising an uninteresting raffle. The advert for Befriending came through on a locally circulated newsletter and I thought being 10 hours child free a week, surely i can give 1 of them to another, this is my way of paying it forward and showing gratitude for all that life has bestowed me. Maybe that’s the Catholic guilt surfacing in me but its how i felt.
Quite frankly it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I was paired with an interesting lady a good fifty years older than me who is articulate, funny and she would hate me to say this – a relic from a different generation. The things she tells me about her life and the family she raised in the area that has become home to me continue to fascinate and astound in equal measure. Penny is such a lovely humble soul, lost in a world she doesn’t understand anymore and is afraid of and one where she misses her dead husband terribly. She tells me she doesn’t know why she is still of this earth and questions the benefits of modern medicine extending her life-cycle at the expense of its quality.
As a befriender, you aren’t just company for a lonely person, you become the eyes and ears of those that are classed as well enough to stay in their own homes but not far off of needing a greater level of care whether in their home or in a care home surrounded by professionals. There is a fine line and the balance can change overnight with quick deterioration either in health or in a lot of cases a nasty fall. There is also more depressingly, their vulnerability to praying parasites in society. Those that think it is ok to take advantage of good nature for their own gains so it’s important to listen and raise the alarm to the Charity when you think something isn’t right.
That first Monday back visiting Penny she opened the door to me rather sheepishly and with a grey hue to her colouring that i didn’t recognise. I try to be all sunshine and light when she opens the door to me as i know she looks forward to our meets, she tells me as does the Charity. It was only after i followed behind as she pushed her trolley for support, a little slower than normal that she was still wearing bed clothes. Hello, I’ve so missed you, how are you?, how was your Grandsons Wedding? (she was fretting about for months before i left) ?? all my questions came tumbling out and only when she had made it back to her favourite arm chair, overlooking the magnificent gardens her late husband cultivated did her face drop and her eyes go sad. I never made it to the Wedding was all she could say. I had another two strokes and i’ve been in hospital whilst you have been gone. I made it out just in time for Christmas she whispered in a way that i felt she was trying to keep herself and her emotions together.
The overwhelming sadness i felt on hearing this came straight to my eyes as they filled up and i struggled to stop them from leaking, i hadn’t for a moment expected to hear that she had been seriously ill in my absence.
By luck rather than judgement her eldest son had been with her when she had her first funny turn, he was over from Dubai to attend his Sons Wedding but she had been alone when after her second funny turn she went to her GP to get checked over at the insistence of her youngest son who called her from his home in Hong Kong. It was then she was admitted to hospital, taken there by a neighbour as the wait for an ambulance would be too long. At the hospital after a scan, it was confirmed she had infact had two strokes and they would need to assess any damage that had been done to her brain. On hearing this both sons had rushed to be with her and it was then confirmed her balance had been greatly affected as had the mobility of the left side of her body.
She told me how scared she was and how frightened she was to be in hospital. How she never slept a wink with all the noise that was going on. How she was worried what was coming next. As it happens the damage wreaked by the strokes was conservative to what it could have been and given her medical history. With her Sons having to go back to their lives and families who are stationed overseas, she is once again alone day to day. It was at their insistence she now has a carer who comes in each morning to help dress her and get her up (as this was proving particularly difficult for her), so for now she is still able to stay in her home. It gives little comfort to her Sons who i should imagine have to manage their worries and fears at a distance. I know this first hand through my husband, who’s own Mothers health is on the wane. The irony is not lost on me.
I tried to encourage her to pay for a cooked meal to be delivered to her each day, like she did when her husbands health was failing him and she was his carer. Penny can neither manage or be bothered to cook for herself so eats crackers, toast or reheated tinned soups. That is not enough to sustain anyone especially when Winter is biting. I can only suggest and advise so much without becoming a nuisance or being seen to interfere.
Instantly being home with fresh eyes, I can sense emotionally the boundaries of being a volunteer befriendee are becoming blurred. Perhaps being away and getting some perspective on my life has helped with this. I missed seeing her each week and I regard my old lady as a friend in my own right despite our contrived introduction and one i am lucky to have met in my life. I often want to do more for her, drop off hot food, invite her for supper with my family and pop in when passing but i am held back because i am unable to shoulder the responsibility of being more than i currently am to her, all the time and particularly at the times when i am desperately needed. I feel torn, after all, I am there to just listen.