Three years ago I received a series of phone calls in the night. My 85-year-old aunt, who suffered from advanced dementia, had fallen over in her bedroom. Her carer, Tsitsi, had heard the crash, wrapped her in blankets and called an ambulance. The paramedics took four hours to arrive, so Tsitsi sat with her and called me hourly with updates on her condition.
I knew my aunt was in safe hands. Listening to their interactions throughout the night, I heard a carer of superhuman patience responding with respect and compassion to the confused, tired and frequently furious questions of a woman who wasn't sure where she was and who the hell this person was sitting on the floor beside her.
Tsitsi's job was tough, but at least she was trained and paid for what she did. Many carers are neither of these things. What's more, the majority of the UK's 6.5 million unpaid carers are silent, mainly because they're too busy looking after their ill or disabled mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters to do anything else, least of all complain.
This week, to mark Carers Week 2015, radio turned the spotlight on this invisible workforce and, my God, what amazingly stoical and incredibly loving people they were.
There was Joanne from Swansea, talking to LBC's Shelagh Fogarty. Joanne had given up her job to care for her mother, who has dementia, rather than see her going into a nursing home, and now was sobbing down the phone at the prospect of proposed Tory cuts to the carers' allowance. "It's just barbaric. It's not as if a suitable alternative to care for [her] is around," she said.
There was Tommy Whitelaw, a Glaswegian carer-turned-campaigner, telling Radio 2's Jeremy Vine about how he had given up his job in the music industry to look after his mother and ended up as her sole carer for five-and-a-half years.
He talked of how other people couldn't see past her dementia – "We have no clue who people are and who they have been and, with the right care and help, who they could be," he said. He also told of the loneliness and sadness of being a carer, and how it "does things to your heart that you can't be trained for, and that you're sometimes not built for."
On The Chris Evans Breakfast Show, in between the parping car horns and daft blathering, we heard from Erin – who was just seven – and who helps to care for her younger twin brothers who have autism. She revealed how she only gets time to herself, or with her dad, when it's bedtime and when the twins are asleep. "In the summer... I'd like to go to the Blackpool Pleasure Beach," she said. "But I can't."
Over the course of the week anonymous carers also offered their own snapshots, describing the anger, the resentment, the frustration, the isolation but also the pride and the preciousness of what they do.
I lost count of the times I cried – at their fortitude, at the cruelty and short-sightedness of the state that would make their lives harder, and at the memory of my late aunt, an immense character whose mind had, by the end, been wiped clean. This was radio doing what it does best: giving voice to the put-upon, the overlooked, those who suffer or are silenced. This, really, is what it's for.
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