Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Able and disabled

As we crawl slowly out of the privacy of coronavirus lockdown I have been pondering the relationships I have with other people.

The ones I like best are the live-and-let-live kind. My husband and our family are very good at that. We are there for each other when needed, whether that's wild partying, childbirth, death, or cleaning a drain. Otherwise, no news is good news.

Many of my friends are similar. I suppose that's the nature of friendship when you live widely spaced in a rural area. It requires effort and/or fuel to make a call in person, so it tends to be by invitation rather than a casual just-passing intrusion. I gather from things I've read that this is sometimes seen as a masculine attitude; that male friendships are a honeycomb of adjacent interests rather than a mingling of personas. I don't much care whether that's masculine or not. I'll settle for the honeycomb any day, even if it does mean that when I complete the surveys about How the Over-60s are Coping After Coronavirus, the number of people I can list as 10 out of 10 for friendship is non-existent. Family get a 10; friends and work colleagues, usually a 6. The rest are acquaintances, with whom I speak/correspond far more by email and on social media, rather than in person. Lockdown has been a confirmation of my preferences, rather than an issue.

There are a couple of friends whom I meet in person who sometimes make me feel uncomfortable. I have had difficulty in pinning down why, but I think it's because they are very intense and ask quite personal questions. We can go along happily for hours discussing external matters, writing, language, the countryside, botany, music, horse management or whatever, even politics; then suddenly there'll be the "And how are YOU?" question, about your joints / your lungs / your eyesight / your bereavement, which, given the above paragraphs about my preferences for the social distancing of lockdown, feels slightly creepy. I would rather not be asked such questions directly. The answers, I feel every time, are very much only to be shared with immediate family and my medical advisers.

I don't know why my friends ask about these things. From my side, it feels as though I am being used as a target for empathy practice. I have been fiercely independent since childhood, and since adulthood I have had a reputation for being powerful and efficient. I don't want things done for me, even by a friend, just because they think I have had a medical or emotional difficulty. It feels as though it's a power trip for them, and I dislike it a great deal.

I imagine people who have chronic illnesses and permanent injuries feel much the same: I certainly would rather be thanked or congratulated for something I have done than pitied for something I can't. Empathy is one thing, but pity is quite another.

Which brings me to considering the elderly, disabled neighbour. He is registered blind, has had toes amputated due to diabetes, needed skin grafts two years ago because he burned his leg while lighting the open fire, and consumes a list of daily medications as long as your arm. My husband goes in twice a day to check on him and set out his medications, morning and evening, because he can't read the bottle labels any more.

Our neighbour really ought not to be living alone at all, certainly not for five days out of seven, from Monday mid-day to Saturday mid-day when his daughter arrives for the weekend. He can't measure out his liquid medications without spilling them, so he glugs them from the bottle, overdoses himself and gets diarrhoea as a result... leaving a brown trail from the couch to the front garden because he can't go upstairs to the toilet fast enough. And because he's blind he can't see if he has made a mess, and because he is disabled he couldn't clean it up if he did. Another neighbour goes in once or twice a week and cleans up after him. Another sometimes leaves him pies or stews to eat.

When I heard those details from my husband yesterday, I was first revolted, then surprised that he hadn't talked about it before, and then angry with the mostly-absent daughter. That degree of unsanitary living is a "high" level of concern on the AgeUK scale. Yet the old man probably thinks, as I've outlined above for myself, that his independence matters more than any other consideration.

At what point should we, as neighbours, interfere further? We can't ask social services for help with his care, not without his consent (disregarding whatever the daughter might have to say). You can’t force someone to accept help or act on their behalf unless they agree to it, and he's not mentally incompetent, just stubbornly independent. I suppose we have to wait until he feels he's had a really bad day, when he has no choice but to swallow his pride and ask for help.

As for me, I think I'd rather break my neck playing with horses before I reach that age.