“He sails out of Southampton.”
“I remember when he was born. You were so excited; your first grandson.”
I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but I couldn’t really help it, given I was early, my stylist busy with her previous client and there was nobody else in the room.
“He loves being on the ships,” the older woman said.
“Well, it’s in his blood; his father, his grandfather and his father before him. And, of course its where you met your husband isn’t it?”
The older lady pulled a face and both women laughed, companionably.
Later the stylist told me that the older woman had dementia. “I have to remind her of her family stories,” she explained. “I have known her for forty years, and it helps her to be reminded, her husband says.”
I realised then why my stylist had been telling more of her client’s life story than the older woman had done; she had been reminding her of her own life experiences, the kind of details that most people chat about while having their hair cut, the kind of details that are written on our hearts.
“I have a sign language system with her husband,” she continued. “I signal to him from the window when she is ready so he can meet her, otherwise she would wander off.” We both laugh and pull sad faces at the same time, aware of the pathos of the situation, cognisant that we may not be many years away from the same fate.
Afterwards, I wonder how many people who are not employed in the care industry actually go out of their way to support others in the community. My hairdresser will not be alone in ensuring that her forty year client can continue to have her hair done, safely. How many shop keepers assist the elderly in buying their provisions? Despite living on a main road, I have excellent relationships with my neighbours and helped to look after one of them in her final months of life. Her GP seemed surprised when she visited one day to find me letting her in. I wanted to explain that care happened frequently, and not only when it was paid for.
When my children were small, there was a network of parents who would help each other out if one of us was delayed, and I often ended up with twins to take home, which was no problem to me if it helped another parent out. We help the elderly off the train or bus, chat to the staff in the charity shops when we drop off our latest donations, assist each other in small ways whenever we can. People extend kindnesses to one another daily. They always have done and they always will do.
And yet, if we judged the world on what we see in the newspapers or on the television, or through social media, we may have a different view. Certainly, during the lockdown of early 2021 I began to feel the loss of the sense of community I hadn’t even known I had. By not going out between October and April, my distrust of others and my fear of the outside grew. By not being part of any physical community, my world shrank and so did my sense of self. I grew lonely and insular.
Emerging only a couple of weeks ago and being able to interact with people as we have always interacted: spontaneously, face to face, in body as well as mind, was illuminating. I felt, on my first few outings, as though I had aged, become dependent where once I was independent. I felt fearful of people and yet yearned to talk to them. I worried I had lost my social skills and would gibber like a monkey, finally let out to be with its own kind once more. And I did, a bit, but that was OK, because I named it, explained that I had not been out for six months, and people understood.
It is not too difficult then, to imagine what genuine house arrest due to age or debility would feel like. When your career has been arrested due to a pandemic, and the political machinations of that, it feels a little like your health has been destroyed due to illness. When you feel no longer relevant or useful, when your place has been removed from society, and you have to forge a new pathway through unchartered territory, you need all the help you can get.
It’s just as well that people, like my hair stylist, and many others, are around to extend their help whenever they can. A small, well placed kindness, the support of the people who cross our paths can make the world of difference. We never know when it is going to be us, diagnosed with a progressive disease or cast onto the scrap heap of political lunacy.
Meanwhile, isn’t it therefore our duty and our pleasure to help each other out, whenever we can? How much of the ‘Care’ with a capital ‘C’ could be reduced if we all enacted our own measure of care with a small ‘c’ on a regular basis? General Practice calls it ‘social prescribing’ and it sits, along with all their posters telling you to eat five vegetables a day, not to smoke, to make sure you breastfeed, in our local surgeries. Maybe we could all be social prescribers? A smile, a conversation, that extra little bit of care as we go about our daily lives – it could make all the difference.
Let’s try it out, if we haven’t already.