The Interview: Bookbag Talks To John Kemp
|The Interview: Bookbag Talks To John Kemp|
|Summary: Sue thought that John Kemp’s book Caring for Shirley was a remarkably upbeat, life-affirming read considering that it was about looking after his wife who was suffering from dementia and no longer recognised him as her husband. It’s probably one of the most feared fates as you get older, and Sue had plenty to discuss with John Kemp when he popped into Bookbag Towers.|
|Date: 4 April 2015|
|Interviewer: Sue Magee|
Sue thought that John Kemp’s book Caring for Shirley was a remarkably upbeat, life-affirming read considering that it was about looking after his wife who was suffering from dementia and no longer recognised him as her husband. It’s probably one of the most feared fates as you get older, and Sue had plenty to discuss with John Kemp when he popped into Bookbag Towers.
- Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?
John Kemp: I think of my readers as mainly middle-aged or older people. Most are likely to know of someone with dementia amongst their friends or family. Some, having misplaced their glasses for the second time in as many days, may worry that dementia could be creeping up on themselves, or that they might one day become a carer. My books tells it like it is but, hopefully, raising a smile and certainly not putting a reader’s emotions through the wringer.
- BB: You've hit the nail on the head there, John. (Searches round for her glasses. Again.) Eight years is a long time to be the primary carer of someone who could be difficult and who didn't recognise you as their husband, particularly as you were not to know as time went on how long the responsibility would last. Did you ever consider that it would be best for Shirley if she was looked after in a nursing home?
JK: I can honestly say that I never, ever, considered putting Shirley into a nursing home. She spent some spells in hospital, and she was occasionally cared for in a respite centre while I took a break, but she never settled there and was always desperate to go home, to the point of becoming seriously disruptive. It was a trying experience for both Shirley and the staff. It is true that, when I was caring for her, she still wanted to go home or to find the John for whom she was always seeking, but the urgency was much less.
- BB: I was struck by the neat play on words in the title, with its linking of caring for Shirley's physical needs and caring for her emotionally. As the caring was all going in one direction did you ever feel lonely?
JK: I seem to remember that I was always too busy to feel lonely. Caring for Shirley was a full-time occupation. If she seemed to be settled, I could leave her for fifteen minutes to run to the shops for a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk, but that was about the limit. After I had put her to bed in the evening, I would get on with the editorial work that I continued with throughout the eight years. Being in a friendly village helped enormously, and we made the effort to entertain friends and neighbours from time to time.
- BB: Did your eight years as Shirley's carer take its toll on you emotionally and physically?
JK: I coped with the emotional side of caring by taking a step backwards and viewing my situation from the point of view of a detached observer. This enabled me to keep my problems in perspective and also to see the comic side of the happenings that made up our lives. When the caring, sadly, came to an end, I did not feel in any way at the end of my tether. After all, I had been expecting to go on for another eight years. I did have a feeling of relief that Shirley had died before me so that our sons, Ben and Colin would not inherit the responsibility of looking after her.
I had no illusions that I had been a perfect carer but, perhaps unworthily, I did feel a sense of satisfaction. I could look at myself in the mirror and feel that I had done my best for Shirley as I know she would have done for me if our positions had been reversed..
- BB: Do you fear dementia yourself?
JK: I am not the sort of person that sits around and broods on what the future might bring, but there is a history of Alzheimer’s disease in my family. I am aware that, whatever challenges dementia may bring to a carer, it can be many times worse for a sufferer.
- BB: Being a carer limits the life which you can lead. What were the personal 'indulgences' which you treasured most?
JK: Time off to do my own thing was the indulgence I treasured most. During the few hours per week when care workers looked after Shirley, I would take off for a swim or to play badminton. If I had a week off while Shirley stayed in a respite centre or was cared for at home by Colin or Ben, I would usually attend a navigation conference. Chatting, over a beer or two, to old friends and colleagues about the state of the world. Absolute bliss!
- BB: What advice would you give to someone placed in the same situation?
JK: I do not often offer people advice because everyone is different in their feelings and capabilities, and no two situations are exactly the same. In my book, I describe my own circumstances and how I coped (or sometimes failed to cope) with various challenges. I certainly do not think of myself as a role-model, but I hope some readers may find episodes in my experiences that could be useful in their own situations.
- BB: We're grateful that your experiences have been published, but what encouraged you to make your thoughts on being a carer available to everyone?
JK: There are many books recounting people’s experiences with dementia but, in the nature of the condition, they are mostly heavy going to read. I have written about caring rather than about dementia itself. Maintaining a sense of humour helped enormously and I have tried to reflect this in my writing. My aim has been to make reading the book a pleasant experience, and perhaps to raise awareness of dementia amongst the general public. As Terry Pratchet once said, laughter can get in through the keyhole while seriousness is still hammering at the door.
- BB: You've got one wish. What's it to be?
JK: That the dedicated researchers who are studying Alzheimer’s disease will find a cure in the near future.
- BB: What's next for John Kemp?
JK: I have been working on another book, which is entirely fictional as compared with the autobiographical, Caring for Shirley. It is about two, long retired, sailors (not unlike me) who become unwillingly involved with activists who oppose the development of a stand of ancient woodland. So the next thing I need is a publisher.
- BB: Good luck with that, John and we look forward to reading the book.
You can read more about John Kemp here.
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