She had always promised him that she would never put him in a Home, however bad things got, whatever happened. But that is what happened.
She had always told him that she would be the only one to look after him. But she wasn’t, not after what she did. Or rather, what she didn’t do.
She had always assured him that, just as for the last fifty five years, it would be just the two of them, seeing it through together, right to the end. But it turned out that lots more people than that had to get involved. After David’s Fall. Or ‘The Incident’, as others referred to it.
She had married late; well into her thirties, quite definitely on the shelf and completely despaired of by her mother. She didn’t really understand why no one had wanted to marry her before then – the girls she had grown up with seemed to have no problem getting married off from the age of 17 – but she’d barely ever spoken to a man. A couple of times, when out with Margaret or Beryl or Ann, someone had offered to buy her a drink or twirl her round the dance floor, but she had always frozen and rebuffed their advances immediately, completely unsure of how to respond to the jokey comments they inevitably made. She always felt that she hadn’t been pretty enough for them to give her a second try and that was just fine by her.
David had been different from the start. He was shy, like her. He was older too – and he had never had a girlfriend either. He respected her reticence, admired her awkwardness, and approached her gently and gradually. He didn’t confuse her with jokes like other men; he seemed to ask her straightforward questions that she knew how to answer.
They married after a year’s courtship of evening walks and classical music concerts. Children had never come along for them – she said it was just never meant to be. She did get pregnant a few times, but her body wasn’t able to hold onto the babies for long. Helen knew that people pitied her for her childlessness but actually, she didn’t really mind that much. She would have loved them, she knew, but she liked her life with David as it was and didn’t want to share him with anyone else. She was sad for him though, as she knew that he secretly yearned to be a father, though they never even really discussed the miscarriages between themselves. People didn’t in those days.
It wasn’t until David was into his mid-eighties that she noticed something wasn’t quite right with him. It had started almost imperceptibly with the little things, those same little things that she felt were happening to her. They joked about getting old together, about forgetting what they came into the room for, about forgetting names, about forgetting their own heads if they weren’t careful!
But then, gradually, it started to get more worrying. He got lost coming back from the corner shop and, when he finally made it home after two hours, he didn’t have the milk or the paper he had set out for and no memory of what had happened. He was a man of few words to start with, but she couldn’t fail to notice that he was increasingly unable to find the right word at the right time. He fed their beloved cat six, seven, eight times a day, unable to remember he had already fed her. The opposite was true for himself: he started to refuse meals lovingly prepared by Helen, convinced that he had already eaten and that she was trying to confuse him. He started to look worryingly thin and he gripped onto their antimacassar backed armchairs and dust free sideboard as he shuffled his way around their immaculate living room. She had to start following him up the stairs, one hand on his back to guide him up and steady him if he stumbled; the other hand gripping the bannisters as she heaved herself up, as arthritis was making climbing stairs increasingly difficult and hazardous for her too.
Helen admitted to herself, in quiet reflective moments, in the dread of the wee small hours, that perhaps there was something wrong with her too. She was never quite sure of the day any more. She found the television difficult to follow and had taken to shutting it off in a temper when she did not understand the twists and turns of a drama. She wrote herself endless prompts and notes – even how to make meat pie, after that awful time when she stood, frozen, in her kitchen unable to start cooking the meal she had made weekly, automatically, for fifty years.
She spoke to her sister on the telephone every Sunday, but they had not seen each other for years as they lived in different cities and neither of them drove. She had been friendly with the couple next door, but since the new young family had moved in, there was no one to see or talk to and no one to notice what was happening to Helen and David.
For the first time, there were cross words between them. She did think about whether David should see the doctor, but she didn’t know how to bring that up with him. David had always made all the decisions for both of them and she didn’t know how to start changing that now. They didn’t want other people knowing their business and what could the doctor do for him anyway? You only went to the doctor if you were ill, and they were both just getting older and they would get through it together. She kept telling him that – that she would look out for him and he would look out for her, as though they were facing a common enemy together, against which they could emerge victorious. Helen and David against the world.
David’s Fall happened sometime in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter. He had been getting up to go to the bathroom through the night for many years. On this night, however, he must have lost his balance in the dark coming out of the bathroom and he crashed down onto the small upstairs landing. (Afterwards, she privately decided that it was a raised lip of carpet between the landing and the bathroom lino that was to blame. She had been asking David to fix it for the past two years).
The noise of David’s head colliding with the edge of the wooden bannisters woke Helen. Her first confused thought was that they had an intruder and she felt over to David’s side of the bed to prompt him to go and investigate. On realising he wasn’t there, Helen made herself get up. It wasn’t easy – it was cold and dark and the pain in her hips and knees prevented her moving anywhere quickly.
David was out cold on the landing, blood trickling steadily from the wound on his forehead. Helen tried to deal with that first, rinsing a flannel under the cold tap and pressing it to his head until the bleeding came under control. He was a silly billy, she told him. He was a nuisance, she snapped as she struggled to bend down to him. He’d better get up sharpish, she said, as he was going to get pretty cold lying there if he didn’t get himself up. Not to mention the mess he was making of the carpet.
Helen carried on trying to help David. She decided that the best thing to do was to get him back into bed, so he could sleep it off. So she took hold of his ankles and tried to heave him into the bedroom. Despite his recent weight loss, she only managed to turn him and drag him a few inches, so that his feet and legs were now pointing into the bedroom and his head was aligned with the top of the stairs. Every time she got a hold of his ankles and tried to pull, a searing pain shot through her left hip and she couldn’t carry on.
Helen decided that the best thing she could do for David at that point was to put a blanket on him. She stepped over him in the doorway and went to the spare room, pulling the camberwick bedspread off the bed and draping it carefully over him. Then she took the pillow from his side of their bed and placed it under his head. Then she sat down on their bed to catch her breath and plan her next move, eventually dropping back off to sleep again.
In the morning, David was still lying motionless between the landing and the bedroom and, though she could tell he was breathing, she still couldn’t wake him. Helen was frightened and couldn’t quite remember what had happened, what she had done, how long it had been since he had fallen. She realised that she needed some help as her ability to lift David was no better in the daylight than it had been in the middle of the night and the gash to his head now looked more alarming. She made her way downstairs, found David’s black leather telephone directory for their GP’s number and made the first of many attempts to get through. She listened patiently to a recording telling her that surgery hours were 8.30am to 5.30pm and that she should call back between those hours for an appointment.
Helen waited for 8.30am to start dialling, then eventually got through to the GP receptionist sometime after 9am to request a home visit for her husband. On being told that the GP she had asked for had retired some months previously and that there were no appointments with his replacement for the next week, she finally broke down and cried to the receptionist that she could not manage to move her husband and asked how she was supposed to manage for a week if he wouldn’t get up off the floor.
After that, things moved pretty quickly and all the other people started getting involved. First the paramedics, then the hospital doctors, then the nurses and the social workers. And the questions started. Why had she not called an ambulance for her husband when he fell in the night? Why did she not call an ambulance in the morning when she could not get through to the GP? Why had they not sought help from their GP earlier? Did they not know that there was help out there, from social workers, from dementia support groups, from Admiral Nurses? Because she didn’t want to cause a fuss she replied, because he had just fallen over and you don’t need to bother a doctor for that, because they were looking after each other. She had made him warm, she pointed out – she had given him blankets. And no, she did not know there was ‘support available’.
David spent some weeks in hospital, recovering (physically) and being assessed and that’s when the terrifying meetings started happening for Helen. When nurses looked sympathetically at her when she visited the ward, when a social worker announced to her that they had assessed David as ‘lacking capacity’ to decide where he should live when he was discharged from hospital. Helen had never considered any other option than him coming home to live with her again, until she was told that ‘professionals’ did not think it was in his best interests to come back to live with her. Helen was filled with fury at a room full of people, none of whom had been born when she had married David, all of them younger than the babies she had lost, and not one of whom knew how they had lived their lives, presuming to know better than she did what was in his best interests. So she tried to tell them of their privacy, how they just liked their own company, how David’s worst nightmare would be to live in a nursing home with others. And they smiled sadly at her, heads on one side, assuring her that her views had been taken ‘into consideration’ as part of the best interests process, but how they had decided that David simply could not come home.
Helen still did not understand why and told them anxiously how she still cooked him his favourite meat pie, how she tried to help him up the stairs by walking behind him, how she was looking after him. And they told her (sadly) that, because of The Incident, David could not come home as they did not think she was fit to look after him. Mortified, she told them stiffly that she would accept help in her home if they did not think she was fit to look after him alone, to ensure there was no repeat of David’s Fall. And they told her (sadly) that, as David required 24 hour care, and the couple did not have the very considerable resources to pay for it in their own home, the local authority would only fund a standard bed in a nursing home appropriate to meet his needs and keep him safe. She asked if she could go with him, but they told her (sadly) that, unfortunately, her assessed needs did not qualify her for funded residential care. David would have to go to a nursing home and Helen would have to go back home alone, with three fifteen minute calls a day from a local agency.
So that is what happened in the end for Helen and David.