Dear Readers, last week I was on my montly visit to Milborne St Andrew to see my 81 year-old parents. It felt like the beginning of summer: for the first time this year, I didn’t bring a raincoat and felt very daring. Dad took me for a walk around the garden, and I treated myself to thirty minutes taking photos of the plants and insect life. I adore the ceanothus, with its heavy honey-scented flowers. For three months it thrums with the sound of bumblebees, as if it was singing quietly to itself.
We had already removed three queen wasps from the house: Mum and Dad had previously had a wasps’ nest just outside the bathroom, so this was quite concerning. Although they have such a vicious reputation, I have always found wasps to be relatively mild-mannered and tolerant. I think that they are somewhat attracted to the cotoneaster outside the front door, not so much for the flowers at this time of year as for the possibility of caterpillars or other small creatures.
And there were many bees on the geraniums and the centaurea, and a fine long-legged spider as well.
I had such a feeling of well-being that afternoon. We had chosen, personalised and ordered the invitations for the 60th Wedding Anniversary party in September. I had spoken to the venue and found details of photographers and bakers and florists. Mum had even started looking for her outfit for the party.
Mum; ‘Maybe I could wear what I wore for my Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary Party’.
Me: ‘Blimey, Mum, if you can’t get a new outfit when you’ve been married for sixty years I’d like to know when you can’.
Mum: ‘You’re probably right’.
And then, just after dinner, Dad announced that he was cold, stood up and nearly fell over. It was 75 degrees outside, but I closed the door and Mum wrapped him up in her shawl while he sat there, shivering. After half an hour of this, he decided that he wanted to go to bed. Mum put the electric blanket on and he shuffled off.
Now, Dad has COPD, or emphysema as we used to call it. He had been a bit chesty, but not more than usual. He’d been admitted to hospital while I was in Canada with early signs of sepsis, but had been sent home, to all intents well, after 24 hours.
‘Shall we call a paramedic?’ I asked Mum.
‘No hospital!’ came a feeble little voice from the bedroom.
The night wore on. Dad became increasingly confused. This is never a good sign. Normally he is as sharp as a tack. When Dad (or Mum) are admitted to hospital, I have to keep repeating the mantra that they aren’t usually confused, and don’t have dementia, otherwise it’s assumed that they’re always this way.
At 11 o’clock, Dad announced that he was getting up and going to work. He’s been retired for 25 years. He actually had his shirt on when Mum went through and persuaded him back to bed. I could hear her telling him off from the living room in spite of Hercule Poirot being on at significant volume.
There is something deeply distressing about seeing someone you love in a state of delirium. It’s as if the person themselves has disappeared under a welter of strange beliefs and impressions, as if you’re no longer living in the same world. And, in some ways, you aren’t. It’s very hard for Mum, but with a mixture of exasperation and humour she normally manages to get Dad to do what she wants.
At this point, we really should have rung for an ambulance, and Mum and I both recognise this now. But no one wants to panic, or to be a burden on the already over-burdened health service. Dad dozed off, and sometimes he’s better in the morning. Come the morning, he was no longer confused, but he did say that he felt terrible, and believe me, that’s not something Dad normally says.
We rang for an ambulance. A bearded paramedic called Ian arrived, checked up Dad’s vital signs and pronounced that he didn’t have sepsis, but he did have a chest infection on his left lung. He reassured Mum that she’d done the right thing in calling him, and said that she should always ring 111 if she was a bit worried, and 999 if she was very worried. The paramedic also got Mum and Dad’s GP to come home for a visit. He prescribed some antibiotics, and within a few hours Dad was looking a bit less pale, and was talking sense again.
It is always such a relief when someone that you love is on the mend. For me, there’s the sense that things can start to get back to normal. I try not to catastrophise, but I can’t stop myself imagining stays in hospital, deteriorating conditions, and worse. Over the past five or ten years I’ve become hypervigilant – if the phone rings and it’s Mum and Dad’s number, my heart starts to thump. It’s much worse for them, of course.
The following morning I was packing to leave when there was a heart-stopping thud from the living room, a sound that had me running down the passage. Dad was sprawled out on the floor, having tripped over his slippers (they are alarmingly carpet-coloured and difficult to see). He peered up.
‘I’ve dropped me antibiotics’, he said.
And indeed, tablets were scattered like so much confetti all over the floor. Of course, that was the least of our worries.
Fortunately, Dad wasn’t hurt, but he was horizontal, and getting up from that position can be tricky, especially when one of you is 81 with a bad back and the other is 57 with a bad back. We managed to get Dad propped up against the chair, but there was no way that, even between us, we could get him any further. Plus, we were worried in case his fall had been because he had deteriorated further, and that he might have hit his head. Mum sighed and rang 111.
20 minutes later, two handsome, burly ambulance guys came in, checked that Dad hadn’t broken anything and got him into his chair. They made sure that the sepsis wasn’t coming back and one of them reassured Mum that she’d done the right thing – it was always as well to check when someone elderly had had a fall, he said. Not that Dad was really elderly, of course, he interjected when Mum gave him what I would describe as ‘an old-fashioned look’.
And so, what have I learned from my latest visit to Dorset? Firstly that when you are getting on a bit (not elderly, obviously) and have multiple health problems, an infection that a younger, healthier person might shrug off can come on like a tornado, and always needs to be taken seriously. Secondly, that dialling 111 is a good thing to do, because they will make the decision about whether or not to call out the paramedics, and then the paramedics make the call about an ambulance. But thirdly, what a remarkable institution the NHS is, and how much we all have to be grateful for. Everyone that we dealt with was kind, patient, competent and good-humoured. Everyone treated Mum and Dad with respect and helped them to maintain their dignity (even when Dad was stranded on the floor).
The NHS is the envy of the world. We are so lucky to have it. It will be one of the major factors influencing my voting next week on June 8th. If you would like to see what the main parties are promising in their manifestos, there’s a link here. Let’s not take the NHS for granted.