It’s a Smart life

Back in 2014-2015 I had a Mother. OK so we all have Mothers, even if we’ve never known them and I’ve had one since birth that I do know. But this Mother was a 6” white plastic electronic unit with a big wide bottom and a narrow top, blue glowing eyes, red lips and a tendency to make weird noises. Don’t say your Mum’s like that, it’s rude. My unit was a Sense Mother, one of the first the Internet of Things (I.O.T.) smart devices. From such humble early devices, it’s a surprise the idea ever took off. My Mother was a crowd funded device, made in France and unfortunately the company has now gone bankrupt. Probably because Sense Mother didn’t do enough things to make it useful.

Sense Mother

The idea sounded great back in 2012 when they first talked of developing it. The concept was of a smart unit that would monitor your life and give you prompts. The slightly creep advertising talked of a mother better than your own. It certainly wasn’t that. But as someone who needed prompting to take tablets, monitor temperatures and wanted to know when people came in and out it sounded great. In practice the reality was more limited. Little devices called cookies were attached to things you wanted to monitor and when they moved the Mother unit registered their movement and checked the temperature around them. It’s ability to register movement was limited in distance and type. So, I could know if I had picked up my tablet pack and I knew when Mary returned home by the front door monitor clunking. But beyond that it really only enabled me to monitor temperature in different rooms.

Fast forward to 2018 and the I.O.T. had leapt forward. Amazon Alexa devices, Hive heating, smart plugs, smart cameras, smart switches all connected and controlled through the Internet. They could be controlled via voice or directly on an app. Enabling me to radically improve my setup last year. So that now I have Amazon Echo devices in all rooms. The one next to me even has a small screen. I can use my voice to call any or all other rooms. Which means wherever Mary or my carers are (including the garden, I have a portable) I can request help. If I don’t know where they are, I just broadcast everywhere.

Echo Show, like I have by my bed

I can view any of my external or internal cameras by requesting the relevant one with my voice, “Alexa show front door”. I also have a Fire TV stick, so that I can display the front doorbell come camera on the TV. I can even talk to a person at the door. The Hive heating gives me control of the heating, “Alexa change the heating to 20 degrees”. Smart switches and plugs give me control of some lights, “Alexa all lights on.” I have control of devices around the house. Before I get transferred into my reclining chair, I can turn on my ripple cushion by voice. When we go away, I can turn off the ripple cushion on my bed. There are several switches that cannot be changed as they are too complex and therefore too expensive. The ones I have changed have been presents for Christmas, Father’s Day and my Birthday. The Hive heating and Alexa were a grant to give me control of the heating from my bed. Most of the smart cameras I won in free competitions. That’s how to have a Smart house cheaply.

Hive Thermostat
Netvue Doorbell camera

One of the big frustrations of limited mobility is lack of control. Smart technology gives me back at least a little control. I would love to have electric curtains/blinds and even door controls, electric door locks do exist, but those are beyond my means. I would also love a smart hoover and a smart mower but the same applies. There is a lot of smart tech out there that I will never be able to afford.

On the none smart, but useful to control side, I love the fact that I can operate the control on my hoist and the control on my profiling bed. It’s also wonderful when I am in the park or a large building so I can operate my own wheelchair. A lack of control is not pleasant. I am so pleased to live in this modern age with modern technology. The speed of technological advance in the last few years is amazing.

I know a lot of people worry about smart devices monitoring their conversations or smart cameras monitoring their actions. For me the control and convenience outweigh the loss of privacy. Let’s face it, I don’t get much privacy in my life anyway. So, wherever I can regain some control I will.

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Disability and the state

When I was younger, I studied social work as an ‘A’ level at night school. My enduring memory is of the night I turned up to watch a cine film. This was the 1970s and you first need to know I have played with and used cine film and projectors since I was very young. The teacher, a woman, was trying to thread a 16mm film into the projector. I went over to offer to help as I know what I’m doing.

She said, “what makes you think you could do this better than me? The fact you’re a man?”

“No, the fact I’ve used cine projectors for years,” I said.

She was still reluctant to accept my help. I realise she was a bit of an extreme feminist, but that event and the course material from the 70s forever influenced my view of social work. I know that’s very unfair of me, but I’m human, I jump to quick decisions about people and ideas. I will give myself some credit though, I am open to changing that opinion.

I had the mistaken idea that social workers were a group of misguided do gooders. I also thought they were set-up to sort out the “dregs” of society. Clean up the mess that no one else was interested in. I certainly didn’t see them as having any relevance to me.

Imagine my shock then when in 2013, I was assigned a social worker for the first time. Even being in contact with Adult Social Care felt like I’d failed. As if somehow it reflected on who I was. I doubt I am alone in feeling that.

Let me take a step back even further than that. I was first unable to work due to illness in 1994. The private company I work for fired me for being long term ill. I suppose that’s fair enough as I had started up and headed a department that was marketing a brand new range of products. Without me, there was no department. They closed it after I’d gone and gave the business I’d hard won directly to the manufacturers. I was suddenly left unemployed with a family to support. Due to my illness Mary had to be around to look after me and couldn’t go back to work.

I grew up believing in hard work and not hand outs. But once I could no longer work, our only choice as a family were benefits. Reluctantly that’s the route we were forced to take. If you’ve heard how difficult it is to get and maintain disability benefits then let me say you don’t begin to grasp the hoops you have to jump through. It’s harder than you can imagine. Being ill and having to fill out long forms and have face to face meetings is stressful and makes you worse. It took me days to fill out each form. Because I was so ill, not only did I get the benefits I applied for, but at one of the face to face interviews the doctor (they were doctors then) suggested I apply for additional benefits, which I then got. As my condition worsened I eventually needed not just financial help but physical care. That’s where social workers first came in. They coordinate and authorise carers and later if you choose direct payments, then the payments. They are part of the team that includes occupational therapists and district nurses who initially assess you. They also recommend and highlight options to help day to day needs when you first contact adult social care. I doubt I have included everything they do as I am going on my observations rather than a crib sheet. When I first had a social worker you were assigned one for all your time. Now you start with one for a few months and then any social worker on duty will deal with you.

It may appear externally as if illnesses or disability in itself is a limitation and embarrassment. But for me I have found the intrusion into my financial and personal life by the state as represented by the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions), far more limiting and embarrassing. We were one of the families chosen for a full in depth check a few years ago. I seem to be regularly checked up on, but I guess that is the system. The DWP basically take your privacy apart. Looking at every statement, transaction, and invoice; spending hours in your home investigating you. It’s like being treated as a criminal, they seem to make an assumption of guilt, and you have to prove you’re innocent. I was and am innocent of cheating the system so that’s OK, but it doesn’t make it less stressful or embarrassing. You may think it a justifiable action to catch those who do cheat the system. But much more money is stolen via tax fraud. I don’t see millionaires being subjected to random in depth checks based on assumption of guilt. If it’s about ensuring the government isn’t cheated of money that would be a fair comparison. Illness and disability are really tough in themselves, the state shouldn’t be making it harder for the minute saving they make.

I understand that when you receive help from the state you should expect scrutiny. But, let me explain it this way. I started work at 16, I didn’t go to a brick University, I started paying tax and national Insurance at that point. I was able to work full time until I was 33 before I became ill. I worked part time whenever I was able to after that. My understanding of any insurance is that you pay it so that in the event you need to claim on it, you are covered. If you claim on your house insurance are you made to feel a pariah? Why should I feel that way having to claim disability benefit from my national Insurance. I am not making a choice not to work, I cannot work. Whenever I have been able to, I have. Surely that’s what disability benefits are for. I should not feel guilty or a lesser citizen for receiving them. Disability benefits should be a safety net for those of us, who through no fault of our own are prevented from working.

Let me finish with my personal experience of social workers. I have known several really good social workers over the years. I won’t name them. They have been compassionate, kind, caring, helpful and understanding. Without their help we would have been in a far worse mess. My misunderstanding of what social workers were led me to have an initial anxiety about meeting them. Now that I have know several I realise how wrong that expectation was. I can only say if you are a social worker, thank you for your dedication and hard work. If you are going to be meeting one, you will find them helpful and understanding.

How can it be OK?

It’s an odd situation we are in. On the surface everything has gone wrong. I lost my independence, mobility, ability to work and hadn’t even finished the work on the house we own. Yet I am at peace and joyful, I won’t say happy because happiness is based on what happens. Joy is not based on circumstances. You can feel joy when everything goes wrong. You can feel joy even in the hardest of circumstances. You can be at peace in the midst of difficulty. That’s what this blog is about a positive viewpoint on a difficult situation. How can things be OK, when everything is wrong?

The situation we are in doesn’t have to rule the way we feel. Feelings are deceptive things anyway, they so easily rule our hearts and minds. The one thing I have found that is unchanging and sure is my faith in God. I can hear all my non Christian readers turn off here and stop reading. But persevere a little longer. After all, I am saying this as someone who has truly tested this out. So maybe I have something worth hearing.

Faith is not religion, religion is not faith. There can be faith in religion but most often religion is just a blind obedience to a set of rules. A legalistic obeying of laws and statutes expecting a positive result. I am definitely not talking about that. You will not find peace and joy that way, because ultimately that is empty. I am talking about living faith.

What I have found to be true is that knowing a personal God, who also knows you and has a relationship with you transforms your life. Faith in God is life changing.

Forget harps, old men with white beards or dusty old books. I am talking about human relationship. We all understand that and feel it’s lack when it’s missing. God didn’t just create humanity and leave us to it. He saw the mess we were making and came into the world he made as a human being. Jesus was fully human and fully God. He wasn’t a blueprint of a future kind of human. He wasn’t a man pretending to be God. He wasn’t an angel. He wasn’t a prophet. He was the one and only, unique son of God. Fully God and fully human.

What on earth am I talking about!? God as a human. Am I mad, don’t I realise how crazy that sounds. Yes I do. There are many incredible and crazy sounding things in this universe that God created. Particles of matter that can be in two places at once. A force that cannot be seen or fully understood and yet holds everything together, gravity. Something that fills the gaps in the whole universe, dark matter. A perfect balance of push and pull at the big bang that prevents the universe collapsing. The more you look at the universe the more amazing and puzzling it is. I don’t have to be able to explain everything to know truth.

I know what love is, not because I can analyse it. I know what compassion is without pulling it to pieces. I can feel the benefit of mercy without fully understanding it. God loves us, God has compassion on us, God shows us mercy. We may not understand his reason or how he does it. We may not be able to explain how he became a man in Jesus. But we can know it is true. We can feel the transforming power of his love.

Before I realised that truth I was a loud voiced mocker. I see many such mockers now on facebook. We tend to mock two things, things we don’t understand and things we fear. Often our fear is that it’s true. That was the case for me. The more loudly I mocked the more it expressed my desperation. So I don’t feel anger at those who mock. I understand something of what they might be feeling. I know God loves them anyway.

Let me return to why I am at peace and I feel joy. It’s because I know God loves me. Jesus has made that known to me. But how you may well ask.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” And, “A rose by any other name will smell as sweet.”

Two really well known but equally untrue quotes. Words are very powerful things. Ask any psychologist, in fact ask yourself. What words said to you as a child still ring in your head as an adult.

Jesus is The Word of God he embodies God’s Word but he also spoke it. When we read God’s Word as recorded in the Bible and we receive Jesus the living Word into our lives then God’s transforms us. For some that transformation is instant and dramatic for others slower and less dramatic. But everyone who accepts Jesus Christ into their lives will be changed. The Word of God has the power to change our lives.

It is this change that means I can cope in the midst of disappointment, despair and seeming hopelessness. Because with Jesus there is hope and a future.

Some of you will know that in May 2015 (see video below) I had a miraculous healing, one that the doctors still can’t explain. For about two and a half years I could walk, and even do work on our current house. When in January 2018 that ended and my health again declined, I was devastated.

You may be aware that the most effective form of torture is to stop torturing someone, pretend to let them go and them re imprison them and start again. Doing this can completely destroy a persons spirit. I felt a bit like that. I had been free, able to walk and work, then it was taken away again in an instant. I reeled at the unfairness of it. I shouted at God about it. He is big enough to take that. When I had calmed down I felt I got an answer.

God had not taken anything from me. On the contrary He had given me a gift. Two and a half years of being able to walk again and being able to do normal things. A wonderful, brilliant gift. Far from being angry at the loss, I became thankful for what I’d enjoyed. I started to enjoy re living what I had done. Then I realised all the blessings God was giving me in this new season. The amazing carers God was bringing along for me to meet. The opportunities I had that previously I hadn’t enjoyed. Everything looked different and my joy and peace returned.

Whatever is thrown at us we can find peace and even joy. You might think it’s an empty joy based on nothing. But you’d be wrong. I have a depth of strength and durability to my faith that stands up to the rigours of life. Faith means you can put your weight on it and it can take your weight. My faith in God can bear the greatest testing. I can put all my weight on him. My faith is stronger than a reliance on material things. They come and go as I know all too well. God is unchanging, He is faithful and true.

To a lot of people Jesus Christ is a swear word. To me he is my way, my hope, and my life.

I am aware that I raise as many questions as I answer. One place that’s good to go and explore those questions is a local Alpha course. They are free to attend and run all over the world.

Find one near you https://alpha.org

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Me able to walk in 2015 following a miracle.

1st Day on my feet in 4th May 2015 (the 2.5 years of being able to walk)

The most amazing carer of all

Mary is my wife, but she is also my most amazing carer. The other day I realised that in my blogs I’ve concentrated on professional carers. Without Mary I would be completely lost, not only does she pick up all the slack but she is my rock and anchor, my best friend and the love of my life.

Mary is utterly amazing. When I totally lost the ability to stand or walk the hospital wouldn’t even let me home before asking Mary this question “are you happy to care for Mike 24/7?” It’s not that they weren’t going to supply carers to assist, in fact we get payments for 26.5 hours a week, which in real terms equates to 19 hours of care a week (care costs are higher than social care payments). But, Mary is responsible for me the majority of the time. So carers on their own wouldn’t enable me to be at home. Caring for me at home is a huge thing for Mary to undertake, it is life transforming for her. She had the absolute right to say it’s too much and after the stroke she had a couple of years ago it is hard for her. I know of several couples where they chose care homes rather than home. Let me show you the real choice she had. I said to Mary that I would be OK to be cared for in a nursing home so that she would not have the weight of my care. She was having none of that and insisted she could manage.

I am not a complete doddle to look after, however it might appear from a quick view on facebook or on a Sunday. I need someone around pretty much all the time. I can’t get things myself, like food or drink, I can’t get myself washed and dressed. I need help with toileting, let me tell you helping an adult with a bedpan is not a laugh. Even if there was a fire, I couldn’t get myself into the wheelchair or get out of the house on my own. I need help with all the basics. It’s wearing, like having a grown up baby. When you marry someone you don’t expect to be looking after them in their 50s.

I would be a useless carer, I am not patient or understanding. I don’t do well with wiping bums or clearing up sick. I coped with our children, because they were children. But adult mess is a whole other thing. Mary copes so well and takes things in her stride. That doesn’t mean she finds it easy, but she does it from love.

When we go out Mary has to overcome her embarrassment in order to move furniture or people and make room for my wheelchair. As we squeeze down roads, into rooms or find places to setup Mary makes space. That takes courage born out of love and care.

The other thing that is really difficult for Mary is giving over her husband and her home to a series of strange women. That’s how each new carer seems at first, it does get better over time. A new lady arrives and takes over my care. How difficult must that be to see your husband being so intimately cared for by another woman and yet knowing it’s needed. How tough is it to have different women coming into your home, your kitchen and taking over for an hour or so. Perhaps only the women reading this will understand that. That’s why it’s so important to find carers that connect with both Mary and I, who understand the whole picture. Carers who we get to know and who get to know both of us. Carers who don’t ignore Mary, but include her. We’ve had carers in the past who see their job as just me. They zone in on me and totally ignore Mary. They don’t last long. It might be fun for me to be the centre of attention, but it doesn’t work if a carer does that.

Illness doesn’t make for grateful patients. It’s not always the fault of the patient. Illness and pain make you grumpy. Tablets can change your character as can many illnesses. So gratitude doesn’t flow easily. Care can be a thankless task for anyone, but somehow it’s often loved ones who bear the brunt. I know I am most grumpy and ungrateful with Mary. I’m much more likely to be sour and negative with Mary than anyone else. I guess we are most real with those we love. The mask comes down. It means Mary really gets the tough end of the deal, negativity and grumps from me then later hearing me laugh and be positive with one of my carers. How unfair is that. But it’s the way it often happens.

Mary really is my most amazing carer, because she is my wife and yet has to cope with all this extra. It’s not how it should be, but Mary has taken a difficult situation and made the best of it. Over all the years of my illness Mary has been incredible. Sitting with me in my pain, praying with me, clearing up the mess, bringing me food and drink, taking me out and about, sharing together, and still loving me.

Kid’s Stuff

Why is it that so much stuff designed for the disabled are either called by baby names or have a double use? Cot sides, drinks holders for prams and wheelchairs, hooks for prams and wheelchairs, the creams, the talc’s, the incontinence products that look like nappies, some wheelchairs that look less grown up than push chairs. What about nappy sacks to dispose of soiled wipes, or the baby wipes themselves. I could go on and anyone who has been or is disabled or has been around disabled people knows what I mean.

There needs to be new a range of disabled products. Macho wipes for men, I am being silly here of course, but you see my point. Or how about a wheelchair able-bodied people are jealous of. I know they are much better than they used to be, but most of the improvement in wheelchairs is in the chassis that you don’t really see. Or the seat that is covered by the user. The most visible bits don’t look great. Yet look at pushchairs these days. I wouldn’t mind going in one of those. They look mean, off road capable, stylish and we’ll designed. Most modern pushchairs look like they were designed by people who cared what the result looked like. There seems to be an idea that because a wheelchair is an essential mobility aid, what it looks like doesn’t matter. But, if that were true why wouldn’t it apply to glasses, another essential aid. I sometimes wonder if designers of disabled products have ever had to use them. I know my chair is NHS and someone will say it would cost too much, but really, good design doesn’t cost more.

Don’t misunderstand me. I think the wheelchair the NHS have given me is functionally brilliant, it meets my needs. I even like bits of its design. But overall it just looks like a chair with wheels. Don’t say that’s what it is, because design transforms function into something we enjoy seeing.

I said I didn’t want this blog to be a moan and I don’t. So, I have a couple of stories to share about using my wheelchair.

I have a lot of friends on Facebook that I have never met, I think I just click yes to friends of friends of friends. So, lots of people have seen pictures of me and know a little of my story, without me knowing them. One day I was being taken out to the local park by one of my carers. As we waited for the traffic lights to change a lady came up to us full of enthusiasm, she gave me a great big kiss on the cheek and said,

“How Great to actually meet you Mike, I follow you on Facebook.”

My carer looked at me and asked, “Did you know her?”

“No, it must be my aftershave.” I said.

Laughing we carried on to the park.

Another time I was in a collapse. Because my chair is so fully supported, and the straps hold me in. I can be moved along slowly when slightly reclined. Mary must operate my chair outside anyway as the collapses count as a sort of fit or seizure. So, she was driving the wheelchair slowly along. As we travelled a young girl and her Grandad walked past.

“Ah! How cute.” The little girl was referring to me.

She then matched our speed and asked Mary lots of detailed questions about me. I felt like a cute little baby in a pushchair being analysed by the little girl. Still, could be worse, she could have been repulsed by me or shouted rude comments. I’d rather be thought cute.

I used to find it embarrassing being in such a supported chair in public. I either get ignored by people who assume I have no mental capacity. Or I get too much attention by people who think I am in need of encouragement. It must be hard to hit the balance.

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Typical item that is both for baby buggy and wheelchair

You look so well

“You look so well.” Those wonderful words that everyone with a life limiting illness or any illness really enjoys hearing. She stood looking at me so sincerely, with such compassion and yet complete misunderstanding in her eyes. But, was I feeling any better, had my condition actually changed? No, definitely not.

We were in a Church meeting and everyone had been so welcoming and lovely. It had been many months since I’d been well enough to attend, and this was a special occasion. My wife and I had made it there, first of many to follow. So, it would have been churlish of me to be too upset by an ill thought out comment. After all I have suffered far worse over the years from people.

I want this story to be a celebration of life and hope. Not a walk of misery and complaint. However, to enable you to understand the hope you have to have a tiny grasp of the problem.

Disability and illness to many of us comes in two clear cut forms. Disability is missing limbs, broken backs or a really extreme physical defect that no one can miss. Illness is only worth mentioning if it’s our own, or when it’s life threatening, or at the very least a well-known and dare I say it accepted disease. By which I don’t mean people want it, just that there is a degree of understanding about it. So cancer, MS, muscular dystrophy etc. But illness and disability overlap majorly and cause life limiting conditions that affect millions of people worldwide. There are the well-known and accepted ones like asthma and the debated and misunderstood ones like ME or Fibromyalgia. Then there are conditions that cause a whole series of physical damage, provable, independently testable damage, but which can’t be easily put under one convenient overall title. That’s where I am.

I need help washing, dressing, toileting, getting food to eat, hoisting into a chair or wheelchair from my hospital type bed. I have carers every day. Basically, my life is totally limited by my condition. I don’t have the mental or physical energy to do the things I used to enjoy. Even writing is slower than it used to be, hence writing this story in sections.

How does that make me feel? Surprisingly it makes me hopeful, full of joy, optimistic, happy and positive. Ask my carers what I’m like, they will say I am positive and happy. Yes, like anyone I have my down times. But not all the time. Most of the time I am upbeat and full of laughter and fun. That’s why I often look well, I try not to look miserable and sour. Add to that the fact my condition gives me a good red colour and I know I look well.

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Care, a unique relationship

Care is a very strange thing. It’s a relationship that is very intimate. Only in medicine do we have equally intimate, yet non sexual things done to us by other people. More intimate in many ways than a husband and wife and yet obviously less so because it’s a one-sided intimacy. Think about it, who is the last person who wiped your bottom? Who is the last person who washed you or got you dressed? Your parents presumably. It’s a relationship where strong bonds of friendship can sometimes form and yet there is a professional distance. There is seriousness and fun, work and play, sadness and joy. In a way many of life’s experiences are lived out through the relationship between a carer and client.

Every situation will be different, not every client is fully aware, alert, able to process where they are or what is happening. Not all clients receive care graciously, some will be difficult and awkward. Not every carer will connect with every client. But, when it works, when everything comes together, when people connect well. Then care can go beyond being just a job.

For me I have had many carers where things have come together just right. I started out by finding being cared for the most embarrassing, awkward and difficult of experiences. Over time I have learnt to accept it and find the laughter in the embarrassment, the fun in the awkwardness and the joy in the difficulties. Not taking myself too seriously has been a great way forward. Most of us struggle with pride and a sense of self-importance that makes it hard to accept help and embarrassing to be cared for.

The one word of advice I would offer to anyone facing being newly cared for is to have a laugh. Don’t be heavy, try and look at the silly side of it all and don’t take yourself too seriously. Yes, it is embarrassing and awkward to think about. But, carers are so professional and well trained that when you get to the situation where they are washing, dressing or helping you on the toilet, you will find it is far less embarrassing than you ever imagined.

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