“I care for my wife out of love, and I know it has to be done”
After 60 years of marriage, John Stewart is now a carer as well as a doting husband. He tells Ruth Ganthony how he juggles looking after his wife and himself.
John and Elizabeth Stewart first met when she was living next door to the joinery where he was an apprentice. On 10 July this year, the couple will celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary. John is very proud of the couple’s 60-year milestone and puts their successful marriage down to always making time for each other. “We used to do lots of walking together, just the two of us and the dogs,” he says. “It was important that we got our alone time.”
Although their relationship has changed over the years, the pair are still very much happily married and John believes that being Elizabeth’s full-time carer has strengthened their bond.
Six years ago Elizabeth, 81, had a heart attack. Although she made a good recovery, her health has since gradually got worse. “As well as her heart condition, she has osteoporosis and senile dementia,” says John. “Last June, she lost the power of her legs due to a blood clot, so she’s now wheelchair bound.”
It proves that I really want to do it and makes me realise how much I love her
John, who is also 81, now finds himself caring for Elizabeth. “One of the hardest things I’ve found is watching her go downhill. We’ve been married now for almost 60 years, and I’m watching her deteriorate from month to month.
“She can’t make decisions any more,” he says. “If you ask her now, she wouldn’t know what day it is. We have 11 great-grandchildren, but she doesn’t really register who they are. She sees our 12 grandchildren regularly, but she doesn’t call any of them by their names. That’s the hardest part to deal with. At least she always knows who I am.”
Elizabeth used to work in a school canteen in their home town of Bangor, Northern Ireland, and was always the main homemaker. Now, their roles have reversed. “Before Elizabeth became ill, I didn’t do any of the cooking,” says John. “So when I first started to take over the food preparation, it felt strange. But over the past few years, I’ve surprised myself. “I have all our meals planned and like to keep ahead of myself. I do lots of casseroles in the slow cooker and often steam fish for her. I sometimes try out the Heart Matters recipes that I get with the magazine.”
As well as caring for his wife, John takes care of himself, too. “I’m in pretty good shape,” he says. “I think that’s partly due to a lifetime of cycling. A few years back, I was a member of the Ards Cycling Club and would do between 250 and 300 miles a week.”
Although he doesn’t get out on the road much any more, he keeps his fitness up by practising on an exercise bike at home, ensuring he’s never far from Elizabeth’s side. He’s also a keen gardener. “I like to grow my own veg, so I still find time to do a bit of pottering. Elizabeth enjoys getting out and about, too.”
The day starts early for John. “I get up at 7am, have my breakfast and do about 15 minutes of exercise to keep my joints loose. Then, I make sure the hot water is on and everything’s organised for the care workers when they arrive.” Two care workers come to the house every day at 10am to help out. They wash and dress Elizabeth and have a special hoist for lifting her out of bed. “I could just about manage to do this myself, but it makes it easier that the care workers always come in twos,” says John.
They have been coming since early last year when Elizabeth became unsteady on her feet. “She used to go to day care for a few hours a day, three days a week but we had to give that up when she couldn’t get around or feed herself any more,” he says.
After getting Elizabeth up, the care workers leave John to feed Elizabeth her lunch. His afternoons are spent doing chores around the house, shopping and preparing dinner. The couple’s routine draws to a close when the care workers return at 8pm to put Elizabeth’s nightdress on and settle her for bed. “They do this day in, day out, so I know them very well,” says John. Then it’s lights off in the Stewart household, ready to start again the next day.
Carers Week (8–14 June 2015) aims to improve the lives of carers and the people they care for. As part of the campaign, there will be 10,000 events and activities taking place around the UK to provide information and raise awareness about the fantastic job carers do. If you’re an individual or part of an organisation that wants to get involved in Carers Week, visit carersweek.org or call 020 7378 4955.
Keep on going
If you really care for a person, you just do it
Caring is a relentless job, so does John ever find it gets too much? “You get the odd day when you don’t feel like it, but then you realise you’re just feeling sorry for yourself and you get on with it,” he says.
“I care for Elizabeth out of love and when I look at her, I see that it has to be done.” He’s also aware that he has had the same care and devotion from Elizabeth in the past – for example, when he suffered severe injuries after falling off a roof. He was unable to work for five months and Elizabeth nursed him back to health.
He says: “If you really care for a person, you just do it.” For John, caring for his wife is now a way of life. And although Elizabeth can’t always communicate her gratitude, sometimes she surprises him. “One time, she’d been in lots of pain and I’d stayed up all night with her and the doctor. The next morning, I asked her if she wanted a cup of tea and she said, ‘No, take it easy, you’ve done enough.’”
Learn more about the information offered by Carers UK
Learn more about NHS information for carers
Find your local Heart Support Group