Touchingly they became carers for one another

They were Shropshire childhood sweethearts

Tuesday 19th July 2011, 10:05AM BST.

For more than 70 years, childhood sweethearts Allen Clifford and his wife Rita were inseparable. Not even Allen being captured as a prisoner of war could keep them apart.

“Rita and I met as 16-year-olds at a church youth club before World War Two,” says Allen, now aged 88, from Telford.

“I was shot down over Germany and interned as a PoW. I subsequently escaped and Rita and I got engaged in 1945 and married in 1946.”

The couple raised a son and lived and worked all over England; Rita as a civil servant and primary teacher, Allen as a lecturer and later an education inspector.

Life was perfect. And when, years later, each experienced health problems, touchingly they became carers for one another.

Says Allen: “We both retired at 60 and had a lovely, trouble-free ten years or so. I was the first to experience health problems when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer and then prostate cancer.

“During this time I was expertly and lovingly nursed by Rita. Rita then started to experience trouble with walking and was in extreme pain.

“Eventually she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and she started taking the appropriate medication.”

By this time they were both in their mid-70s and Rita started to show signs of confusion and memory loss.

Eventually tests identified dementia. But as Allen says: “Little information was given to me, her carer, but it was then that I saw that famous interview on TV by John Suchet about his wife and her problems and his invaluable help – the Admiral nurse, mental health nurses who specialise in dementia.

“Our village was pretty isolated so we decided to move to Shropshire to live near our son and his family. Here we found an excellent GP Practice and a splendid social services department who immediately found us an Admiral nurse and arranged weekly sessions for Rita at a very well run day centre for dementia patients.

“Our Admiral nurse was essential and helped me feel supported. She offered excellent advice and information and I found her visits pacifying and reassuring.”

When Rita was at a day centre it gave Allen a chance to go out and speak to local school children about his experiences in the war.

Things went well until Rita had a fall and fractured a rib and punctured her lung. Allen took her to hospital but says: “When I visited her the next morning she was in some distress, as was I when the lady in the next bed told me that she had fallen out of bed because no side rails had been fitted to her bed.

“I resolved then to ensure that all her treatment in future would be carried out at home.”

At this point it was suggested that Allen have a short respite care break and Rita should go into a new local care home. The first night she spent there they sent her to hospital. There she spent her last three weeks, moved from ward to ward and bed to bed, says Allen.

“She was by this time unable to eat or drink unaided and yet every day when I visited her breakfast and lunch would be on her bedside table,” he recalls.

“The doctors at the hospital were first rate but the nurses seemed completely unaware of the really desperate condition of an 87-year-old lady with dementia.

“When I was caring for Rita her weight was just over four stone – what her weight was I when she died I can’t even imagine.”

Allen says he felt very frustrated and angry about the specialist care Rita needed, but didn’t receive, in hospital and is now working to help improve dementia care in hospitals.

“In my experience, and having talked since to other carers, care for people with dementia in hospitals is really very poor and often unsafe. Nurses seem not to have been trained to care for people with dementia at all.

“Most strikingly it seems to me that charities like Dementia UK and the Parkinson’s Society should be recognised more widely for the great work they do in raising awareness and working with carers.”

Allen now fears that amid government cost-saving measures the future of services that are currently available to carers such as himself could be in jeopardy.

“Local services and support, such as day centres, and our Admiral nurses cannot be cut,” Allen insists. “Carers rely on them as they allow carers to take a break themselves.”

So what is the lot of a carer, and who are they? We are not talking about trained professionals, as, perhaps surprisingly, three in five people will be a carer at some point in their lives – a statistic that means there is a high chance that one day the true face of a carer will be the one you see in the mirror.

In June, Carers Week 2011 – which was supported by Age UK, Carers UK, Counsel & Care, Crossroads Care, Dementia UK, Macmillan Cancer Support, MS Society, Parkinson’s UK, and The Princess Royal Trust for Carers – revealed the surprising stories behind the six million carers who save the country’s economy £87 billion every year.

Carers are those provide unpaid care for someone who is ill, frail or disabled. Some of them are forced to give up work to give 24 hour care. Some of them hold down top-level jobs, working a double life as carer and employee. Some of them are children; those who should be the cared for, having to do the caring.

A carer receives only £53.90 a week – the lowest benefit of its kind. And that’s for a minimum of a 35-hour caring week. At £1.54 an hour, this is a third of the national minimum wage.

Carers Week 2011 highlighted and celebrated the incredible contribution that carers make, sharing the challenges overcome as well as those still being faced, and campaigned for greater support and recognition for carers.

Carers like Allen Clifford, who lost his wife Rita last year. He says: “Caring was hard for someone my age but I wanted to do it and didn’t trust the alternatives that were often more stress than help.

“It was physically exhausting, and I was dead beat at the end of the day. I did all of her personal care, everything she needed.

“I was offered help but they wanted to come too early when we were still asleep. Emotionally it was distressing to watch Rita disappear in front of me as she was a lively vivacious woman. It’s a daily bereavement that happens bit by bit.

“Caring for Rita was what I wanted to do and she was always delightful. She had a lovely life but died in hospital in squalor.

“This isn’t right and it still upsets me.”

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