I cycled past a friend, who was walking her dog, and we waved to each other. Several years ago, her husband, who was then in his mid-sixties, had a severe stroke and she looked after him for several years before he had to be admitted into permanent residential care. She still visits him frequently, but has had to rebuild her life.
It can’t be easy, can it? He wasn’t an easy person even before he was ill, but afterwards it was hard for an independent and proud man to accept constant help and support, even from his nearest and dearest. When he first came home from hospital, she was offered help by social services, but she was so pleased to have him home and was optimistic, and turned it down. As life became more of a grind, she wished she hadn’t – it can be more difficult to get help when there isn’t an apparent increased need. He’d lost the use of one arm and was given physiotherapy and exercises to do, but he didn’t like them. She told me that, once, he succeeded in moving his arm, but said it had hurt and he wouldn’t try again; but the best chance of regaining movement is in the first year and if it’s left too long a permanent disability remains. It’s hard to understand why he would rather bear that than go through temporary pain, but it can be easier to criticise than to comprehend.
Eventually, as I said, she couldn’t cope physically and he has settled down into nursing care. And I’ve always wondered how she felt as time went on – is relief tinged or even blighted by guilt? It shouldn’t be; she had done absolutely all she could and still cares for him as much as ever. But friends whose spouses or parents have died after a long illness have found the same thing: that having your life back isn’t as simple as it sounds. It can be difficult to learn to enjoy yourself again.