Caring for Shirley by John Kemp

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Caring for Shirley by John Kemp

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: John Kemp cared for his wife who suffered from dementia for eight years. These are the stories of how he coped - and they make a remarkably upbeat, life-affirming read. John Kemp popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 284 Date: March 2013
Publisher: CreateSpace
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1479374243

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John Kemp's wife, Shirley, suffered from dementia and loss of coordination and for eight years he was her full-time carer as she was unable to walk unaided (well, she could - but it was likely to result in a serious fall) and took care of all her most personal needs. Probably the most heart-breaking part of this is that Shirley didn't recognise John as her husband - apart from 'give us a kiss', the question 'where's John?' was usually the first which sprang to her lips in any situation. Although she could often have quite an affable disposition she was capable of kicking and biting when she was being 'encouraged' to do something which she didn't want to do.

Just occasionally a book is best explained by saying what it isn't and it's particularly true of Caring for Shirley. It isn't a misery memoir, a pity party or any other phrase which you might use to describe books in which the authors indulge their self pity. Kemp is remarkably sanguine about the hand which fate had dealt him and never for a moment rails against his lot. Shirley's health was complicated by the fact that she suffered from epilepsy and had regular seizures, which Kemp, or one of Shirley's other carers would have to deal with and which required regular medication to help control them.

The book's definitely not a hard read, either. It's not worthy, or educational other than in the loosest and almost incidental sense. In fact there are occasions when it's downright funny as Kemp discovers the need to take a step back from what is happening and distance himself emotionally in order to cope. There's a sense throughout the book of a story being told by an observer with a deliciously wicked sense of humour - but he never trivialises what is happening to Shirley or makes fun of her, when it would be easy to do so. Remarkably he never blames her for what is happening to them both.

Nor is this a manual for those needing advice on how to look after someone suffering from dementia, although anyone in this situation will come away with a lot to think about, particularly when it comes to how to get the best from and for the sufferer. Shirley is the person Kemp puts first (but has to be persuaded to put himself first on occasions, even if only for Shirley's sake) in all he does. As he says, every case is individual and will require a different approach, but as an example of doing better than merely coping, of finding ways around difficulties and (for the most part) keeping a smile on your face this is something quite special.

The book is a series of stories which build into a compelling whole: stories which shine a light on Shirley, but also on Kemp and his ways of handling the situation. I thought that it would be a book which I would have to work at, but it definitely wasn't - in fact I read it in two sittings and (if it doesn't sound too unkind to say so) with a great deal of enjoyment. I'd like to thank the publisher for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

If you are looking for information about dementia then we can recommend Dementia: The One-Stop Guide: Practical advice for families, professionals, and people living with dementia and Alzheimer's Disease by June Andrews . For a fictional look at the subject you'll undoubtedly enjoy Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. Both books will shelve happily alongside Caring for Shirley. And this is how caring works at the other end of the scale.

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Buy Caring for Shirley by John Kemp at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Caring for Shirley by John Kemp at

You can read more about John Kemp here.

Bookinterviews.jpg John Kemp was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.


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