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Welsh Mother Barbara MacArthur, 93, Talks About Being A Carer After Her Guardian Letter Goes Viral

July 30, 2020

For more than half a century, Barbara MacArthur, one of the first female police officers in south Wales, has worked countless, long, unpaid hours as a carer.

In the 1960s she began looking after her ailing parents in her small terraced house in Cardiff and now, aged 93 and frail herself, she continues to care for her 66-year-old disabled son, Howard. The pair live on the cramped ground floor of the house because neither can make it up the stairs.

MacArthur has always approached her caring duties with stoicism and good humour – until this week. The coronavirus crisis prompted her to write a heartbreaking letter to the Guardian in which she spelled out her fight for survival, argued that the care system was broken and said she wished she had the time to feel lonely.

Speaking on the doorstep of her home on Thursday, with Howard occasionally putting his arms around her, MacArthur told of her surprise that her cry for help had gone viral on social media. “It’s just our story,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to get such a response.

“We feel a little forgotten about sometimes. Most of our relatives and friends have died or moved away. I used to be able to struggle out to the shops on my walker but can’t even do that now. We’ve been pretty much stuck here on our own throughout the coronavirus.”

The last time MacArthur made headlines was when she helped bring to justice two burglars who had been posing as window cleaners. She recognised the pair from an appeal in a local paper and called the police. Once a police officer, always a police officer.

But in her letter to the Guardian, MacArthur launched a withering attack on the care system. “Our broken care system has been decimated by coronavirus,” she said.

As well as being a police officer, MacArthur spent time working as a hotel housekeeper and a court clerk. She raised Howard by herself after her husband left.

In the 1960s and 70s she looked after her parents, Ruth and Thomas, who died aged 90 and 93. “They couldn’t bear to be in a council home so I took them in. It was hard work, unpaid work.”

Today MacArthur is partially sighted, hard of hearing, has arthritis (the rare form ankylosing spondylitis) with partial paralysis in her left hand and a heart murmur. She has had a heart attack and two mild strokes.

Howard has learning difficulties and physical disabilities and in 2018 he had sepsis. At the time he was still sleeping on the first floor and MacArthur had to crawl upstairs to tend to him while she waited for the paramedics.

MacArthur believes cutbacks before coronavirus made it more difficult for them to get help. “I love Howard very much but it’s very hard. I sometimes wish there was a bit more help,” she says.

Another problem is the street in Cathays where they live. “It’s become a transient area here. It’s very popular area for students and most of the houses are empty at the moment. There are not that many local people around here to help.”

While the Guardian spoke to the MacArthurs, a friend, Jason Morrow, did arrive to deliver milk and the papers. “I do what I can to help – they’re lovely people,” he said. And at lunchtime, Cardiff council’s meals on wheels service arrived with hot lunches.

At the start of the pandemic mother and son struggled to get supermarket deliveries. The MacArthurs’ local Senedd member stepped in. Jenny Rathbone said she admired MacArthur hugely – “She’s an extraordinary woman ”– but disagreed with her on some points. “I don’t think our current system is broken though it is under strain and needs more money.”

Rathbone said she was sure that, if MacArthur gave her permission, social services would assess the pair and potentially provide more support.

They have been receiving council food parcels during the crisis and Howard has a social worker, who was in touch hours after MacArthur’s letter was published.

MacArthur signed off the letter with the puzzled: “Why my son and I have not been added to the ‘vulnerable’ list is beyond my comprehension.” She is not clear if she or Howard are on the Welsh government’s shielded list but she accepts that she has turned down offers of help from the council, which carries out regular assessments of their needs. “It’s partly because I’m stubborn. I don’t like to ask for anything.”

Now she and Howard live day to day and worry about how a second wave may affect their lives. Howard does his best to help. “I used to be the carer,” said his mother, “now I’m not sure which of us is the carer and which is the one being cared for.”

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