Every day in the UK, 6,000 people become a carer, often unexpectedly, and often for someone they love. Quietly happening behind closed doors, this life-changing moment is only recognisable to a knowing eye, a unseen seismic shift in dynamic where people try to adapt to the hand they’ve been dealt.
This very thing happened to Norman Meecham when his wife, Shonah, had a stroke in 2003. Both only in their 40s at the time, this was something neither Norman nor Shonah had ever imagined, but it changed both their lives forever.
“People told me to seek help, but I said I didn’t need any, and could manage by myself,” says Norman, who also worked as a full-time firefighter in South Clyde while trying to care for Shonah. “I wouldn’t listen to anyone about what I could or couldn’t get in the way of help. I just thought I could do it. I’d looked after people all my life, so I wanted to look after her as well. But I didn’t realise how much it would affect me, until it eventually became too much.”
“I’d looked after people all my life, so I wanted to look after her as well. But I didn’t realise how much it would affect me.”
Norman struggled on alone for a few years, leaving his job in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to become a full-time carer. It was during the Meechams’ rehabilitation visit to our Cumbrian centre, Jubilee House, in 2012 where Welfare Caseworker Irene Ramsden suspected something needed to be done, and quickly.
“We discovered Norman was manually lifting Shonah in and out of bed himself,” she says. “He had been diagnosed with Parkinsons but was still living as his wife’s sole carer, with no help from anyone else. We knew we had to do something. Part of the original referral was to see what support groups they could access at home, but it very quickly became more than that. Our priority was to get them safe, and get the care package in place as soon as we could.”
Irene managed to get Shonah and Norman – then aged 53 and 58 – registered with the necessary care provision through social services, spoke to GPs and community nurses, and helped with applications to their financial statutory entitlements. She also organised an occupational therapist to complete an assessment of their home, which they eventually left to move to a safer bungalow, also supported by Irene. Their bathroom was adapted into a wet room, doors widened and ramps installed., and Irene liaised with social services for two carers to visit them both five times a day to help take the pressure off Norman and let him find time to focus on his own health, as well as Shonah’s.
For Norman, this has provided some desperately-needed relief. Like many carers, he says it is the invisible impact on his life that he has struggled to deal with: “If you break your arm, you have a cast. If you bash your head, you have stitches. But no-one sees you if you’re a carer, and unless you’re also caring for someone you love, people just don’t get it.”
This Friday is Carer’s Rights Day, an event organised by Carers UK to provide information and resources to help people.
“The carer network is the unpaid workforce of our country, and are superheroes behind closed doors,” says Irene. “For those who are over 65, they aren’t entitled to carer’s allowance, because they’re of pension age, so don’t have that extra bit of income to spend on outside carers coming in to support. I have one family where the granddaughter is the main carer, and in another there’s an elderly woman whose husband has dementia, which is a 24-7 job caring for him. She’s been given just two hours a week of a sitting service, to give her time to herself, and that’s it. Last time I spoke to her, the carers had failed to turn up, with no explanation. It’s just not acceptable.”
“The carer network is the unpaid workforce of our country, and are superheroes behind closed doors. We need to do more to support them.”
“We need to do more to support our carers; these people are doing a brilliant job, but theirs isn’t seen as an essential service, even though it is. That’s why Carer’s Rights Day is good, because it tells people they have rights, they are entitled to help, and there are people who will help them get it, even if it’s just signposting them in the right direction. ”
“I wish I’d asked for help sooner,” says Norman. “You think you know it all, but with this, you know absolutely nothing, so let people help you.”
If you are caring for someone – or are facing the possibility that you might have to start – and would like support from The Fire Fighters Charity, get in touch.
Contact the Customer Care Team on 01256 366 581.