Sometimes, you happen upon an unlikely hero and, when you do, they leave a deep impression. Heroes come in many guises – they don’t all look like Jason Bourne or Daniel Craig. Sometimes, they simply look like an ordinary bloke who stands up for what he believes is right. Pushing himself to the very limit, way outside his comfort zone, because there isn’t another way.
They look, in fact, like Chris.
Let me introduce you to Chris (that’s his real name). Chris’s life hasn’t been easy. When he was 11 (he is now 51) he had an operation that went badly wrong. It was supposed to be routine but the doctor screwed it up and Chris has been living with the consequences ever since. You don’t need to know the ins-and-outs of it, but it was life-changingly bad, (catastrophic even), affecting his health, his employment prospects, his social life and his confidence. When he first told me his story three years ago, he was shaking with emotion and drenched in perspiration. The stress of living on the edge for so long has shredded his nerves.
None of this makes Chris a hero. But his determined response to his situation does. I’m talking about true grit.
This is Chris’s story, told with his and his wife’s permission:
It rapidly became clear after his op that Chris needed long-term help and care. Not around the clock, but in a bunch of ways that allowed him to function normally and get to his hospital appointments. The botched op means that for the rest of his life, Chris needs operations and procedures for which he has to be hospitalized. Fortunately, Chris is married to Jen who is devoted to her husband and can accompany him to the hospital.
Unfortunately, Jen works for a corporate giant that doesn’t give its employees paid leave to provide care. And here’s the punchline: Jen is not legally entitled to take paid time off to care for Chris. What you might call “Care Days”. In practice, Jen uses her holidays as Care Days but of course, eventually, she runs out of days to take. At that point, she works all the hours in the day and then cares for her husband at night, and is back at her job the next morning, having had virtually no sleep. This happens over and over and over. Unsurprisingly she is chronically exhausted which isn’t good for her Type II diabetes condition.
When I met Chris and Jen to hear their story, it was a horrendous tale of helplessness allied with dogged determination in an unfair world. I make no bones about it, when they both were overcome with emotion during our conversation, I felt it. Why, in the modern day, should a couple have to endure relentless hardship in the aftermath of an op gone wrong many years before? Why can’t Jen take some paid Care Days to look after her husband?
The reason I am telling you all this is because, despite his plight, Chris is on a quest. Not a quest for compensation or anything like that, but an all-out quest for a change in legislation that will entitle carers to take a small amount of paid leave annually to care for their dependents. You would have thought, in 2018, that this would be a foregone conclusion. Your loved one is sick and needs care, so you get some Care Days to look after them. After all, these days, we rightly get worked up when there are five men and no women on a Question & Answer panel. And, this is an era in which society deems it right and proper to allow people the freedom to express themselves the way they want to. Caitlyn et al.
And if a woman is expecting a baby, she is entitled to take maternity leave with no questions asked.
Which is as it should be!
So, why doesn’t society deem it essential to allow carers some paid leave to look after dependents who have been certified sick by their GP? That’s the issue that Chris has been grappling with for the last 20 years. His quest, to be clear, isn’t really about his own personal circumstances; he is fighting a battle for all carers up and down the land who look after the sick and the vulnerable day after long day, and who desperately try to hold down a day job at the same time.
Chris is a big, well-set guy, well over six feet tall, who wears a look of tired concern; his shoulders hunch and he walks with a slight limp. During our conversations, he repeatedly apologizes for intruding on my time. I tell him there’s no need to apologize but the habit is ingrained and he says sorry again. I have come to understand that Chris is used to being ignored. Very few people are interested in his story or his plight. Yes, important, influential folk occasionally listen politely to his argument, but at the end of it he comes away with nothing. He has sent countless letters to his MP, to various senior civil servants and to law-makers. He has attended more All Party Parliamentary Groups than I’ve had hot dinners, and he has made powerful representations within the Palace of Westminster. He has stood up at conferences and told audiences that carers should be entitled to some paid leave. “Adoptive parents get paid leave to look after their newly adopted children”, he tells the audience. “Carers, however, do not get paid leave (unless they have generous employers), and that’s not fair”.
We all know the UK Government is in search of a solution to the social care needs of Society because, in summary, it cannot make the numbers add up. The Government simply cannot afford to pay for adequate social care for our rapidly ageing population and is arguing for a solution that involves the elderly paying for their own care, provided they can afford it.
Proposals have included homeowners being obliged to utilize equity in their homes to fund their care in old age. For homeowners, this wasn’t in the original script and it’s not a popular idea – except with Millennials, who, by and large, don’t have any such equity.
The fact is, provision of social care is prohibitively expensive, and those who provide it should receive some financial assistance. That includes some (paid) days off to provide care.
Social Care is one of the hottest topics on our collective plate. When we’re not talking about Brexit, we’re discussing social care; this particular issue of paid Care Days fits neatly into the discussion, and Chris is championing the cause whenever and wherever he can.
The snag is that, on his own admission, Chris is terrified of public speaking.
“I haven’t slept for the last two days, I am so nervous!” he told me the last time he addressed a small conference on carers’ needs.
Here’s a few seconds I recorded on my phone:
That’s the heroic part of the story. He’s an unlikely and an unsung hero. Although his confidence is low, when most of us would stay silent in our fear, Chris speaks up.
He tells it like it is, and he deserves a hearing. After all, this is how change happens…
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