Eye care

This book does for care home workers what This Is Going to Hurt did for junior doctors – The Telegraph

There’s a real tenderness to Lonergan’s descriptions of those people. We meet 98-year-old Simon – “tactile and affectionate, he calls me ‘darling’ even though I’m another man with a beard” – who witnessed the horrific death of his best friend during the Second World War. We spend time with tanned and stylish Sue, who confuses her male carer with her husband and is furious he won’t have sex with her. And Edith, a woman reduced now to “Sniffs and chirrups. Mumbled fragments of speech”, while her bereft daughter lingers by her bedside. Then there’s Barry, who claims to have killed his wife, and Dennis who brags of his cruel treatment of the women he seduced while working as a bartender.

Resistant to viewing his charges in the soft focus tones of the home’s brochures, Lonergan admits that he’s scanned the communal area of the home and asked himself: “How many of these old men have beaten their wives? How many of these frail and shrunken people have ostracised black neighbours or spat racist abuse at new arrivals?”

Lonergan himself has been the victim of violence. Scalding drinks have been thrown over him. According to a University of Massachusetts study, care workers face injury rates more than twice as high as those of construction workers. No wonder he admits to the occasional impulse to push a resident out of the window and needs to take himself off to calm down in the staff bathroom.

As a recovering drug addict (who, ironically, has to check the drug cupboard is safely locked before starting shifts), Lonergan believes that “working through my own shameful experiences in front of an audience allows the listener to forgive themselves for whatever has caused them shame”. So he believes we need to remove the stigma from the realities of ageing and care work by bringing them into the open. He writes with unfiltered honesty about all the bodily and mental spillages. He writes about death, including one memorable anecdote of a woman who died holding his hand while he was chatting to another resident’s little granddaughter. So they had to pretend the deceased was unwell and remove her from the lounge before the child realised what had happened.

Lonergan publishes his book in a week that charity Care England has alerted the public to the fact that UK care home providers face paying up to four times pre-pandemic levels for their insurance, leaving “many” at risk of going out of business. Homes are also struggling to recruit and retain their workers, with a 10th of job vacancies unfilled. Even Lonergan has walked away. He thinks it’s absurd that he’s paid and valued more to stand on stage and tell jokes than he was keeping people alive.

But you can’t blame him for quitting. The last home he worked in had a sign at the entrance reading: “Respect and Love for Everyone.” He thought it was “a good maxim to live by. Especially when you’re trying to show respect for people who are in their autumnal years.” The only problem is that he would read the sign and “then spend the next 14 hours… washing old knobs for minimum wage. So where’s my f—ing respect?”

His conclusions are pretty bleak. He doesn’t believe the government’s plan to “reform adult social care” with money raised by a 1.25 per cent national insurance tax increase will go far toward remedying the “ fundamental long-running” problems with the system. He reminds us funding for social care is contingent on the NHS clearing the Covid backlog – only then will funding trickle down to elderly care. 

All he can do is suggest that his readers take matters into their own hands: “send an email to your local care home and commit to doing a shift every week or month”. He hopes that experience will leave us “better equipped to deal with illness and ageing, and able to see dementia as more than just an obliteration-in-slow motion”. And once we’ve seen what the job requires, we’ll all push for “wage increases, better training and more resources for the care home employees.” It’s a job nobody should feel “embarrassed” to do.

I’ll Die After Bingo: The Unlikely Story of my Decade as a Care Home Assistant by Pope Lonergan is published by Ebury at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

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