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Jilly Cooper on caring for her husband Leo

By Gloucestershire Echo  |  Posted: September 28, 2013

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Anybody who has ever interviewed Jilly Cooper knows she's an absolute delight; charming, chatty and caring.

Everything and everybody is marvellous, jolly or wonderful as she radiates positivity and refuses to let the ups and downs of life cloud her naturally sunny nature.

But despite feeling as if she has had a charmed life and despite being picked as one of 66 Britons defined by their achievements and not their age, Jilly has not been immune to the problems facing any other 76-year-old.

Three years ago she suffered a TIA, a mild stroke, and her husband of 51 years, Leo Cooper, is confined to bed after contracting Parkinson's Disease over a decade ago.

It must be difficult moving from wife to carer and in the past she has spoken about how the lack of sleep is one of the hardest parts, but you'd never know it the way she talks about how you have to count your blessings and can't mope around feeling sorry for yourself.

On her website she says she doesn't want "to appear posing as Mother Courage or to be grumbling or complaining about our lot when other people are having such a rough time". And she doesn't.

The only time her natural brightness dims momentarily is when I clumsily ask if she has ever considered a residential home for her beloved husband who she has known since she was nine years of age.

"No," she says emphatically. "Absolutely not. No. This is his home. He's going to stay here. I love him. Everybody loves him, he's precious to us all, " she says before listing all the friends, family and animals that, like her, would never countenance such a move.

"It's sad because he has difficulty expressing himself and speaking clearly, so we have difficulty understanding what he means, which must be so frustrating for him, but he is so very brave."

Leo first discovered he had Parkinson's well over a decade ago and one of the last times he was seen in public was at the wedding of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall in 2005. When Leo was rushed into hospital on Christmas Eve 2011 after collapsing at home, Jilly practically lived in a hospital for nine weeks. Her experiences have made her a passionate supporter of the NHS and left her keen to let everybody know how caring and professional the doctors, nurses and carers have been.

She said: "He was in for months and I could not fault them. From the beginning they were there, interested, hand-holding, performing little miracles, they could not have been more attentive.

"Gloucestershire Royal Hospital is a vast, huge place, but it is very effective, efficient and very kind and humane. The lovely consultant who specialises in Parkinson's, Pippa Medcalf, is wonderful and so beautiful and so kind. She really cheers us up.

"He spent months at Gloucester and Stroud, which is much smaller, and when you are there you see all the problems they have. Accident and emergency are absolutely inundated and people have so much paperwork to do. It's the same with all our public services , there's so much time wasted filling in forms."

Did she get preferential treatment because she is a famous author and writer of Riders, the book Tesco shoppers named as their all time favourite beach read?

"I don't think so," she said, Though I do think it makes a difference if you are polite and appreciative and say thank you rather than being deliberately difficult."

She says people should count themselves lucky for the NHS and not be frightened by the scandals that have surrounded it because they do not reflect anything she has seen over the years.

"I think people are terrified," she said. "One hears such scare stories. It's a bit like children hearing about terrible abuse in children's homes and being terrified of being taken away from their parent and thrust into a home. There is a real blackening the name of our institutions going on at the moment.

"Accountability can be an issue. Some of the patients are a bit muddled and when a lady comes around with a clipboard and asks when they last saw a nurse or a doctor they say two days ago, even if it was two minutes ago and that's what goes down on record."

She is equally effusive about the occupational therapists who have helped make her medieval cottage in Bisley, Gloucestershire, suitable for looking after Leo and the district nurses who come out when she needs them.

"'I'd had a minor stroke so I couldn't do it on my own. We have a live-in carer and extra carers coming in three times a day, who are marvellous. It has to be paid for but the NHS do help with things.

"This is a big house and all the care is very expensive. I love writing anyway but I have to keep on working because I have to pay for it all.

"I think people feel guilty about growing old and needing everybody there to support them. Some people say, 'Gosh, we have to work until we are 70,' but I feel lucky that I can. Leo's my husband and I've got to get on with it."

She is currently researching her latest book on flat racing and has admitted her last novel Jump was not as racy because it's harder to write sex scenes in your 70s.

But she doesn't feel lonely because the house is always full and her two adopted children, Felix, a property developer , and Emily, a make-up artist, have looked after her "wonderfully". It was Felix who noticed something was wrong when she had a minor stroke and insisted she saw a doctor, a decision which could have saved her life.

Shortly afterwards she gave an interview saying the love and care she had from her children at the time was heart-warming.

"They phoned, came round and generally cosseted me which really buoyed me up. I am not frightened of death, but nor do I want to be a burden to my children," she said.

Although she is not lonely she recognises many older people are and said: "My friend Esther Rantzen has set up a help line which is a good idea because it must be desperate being a widow or widower living all on your own, without people to talk to.

"I am incredibly lucky living in Gloucestershire because there are so many great walks in such beautiful countryside. My favourite quotation, written by Sacheverall Sitwell is that: 'The birds sing on the trees for rich and poor. There are so many nice people in our village who always stop for a chat, and when you are 90 they ring the church bells for you, but I've got a bit to go for that."

She thinks how older people are perceived is often in their own hands and does not believe young people have a negative view of the old.

"People don't like old moaners," she said. "I'm a great believer in laugh and the world laughs with you. Look at The Two Fat Ladies, everybody loved them because they were such fun."

"People enjoy talking to older people because they are the key to the past and have stories to tell."

She laughs: "On the other hand, if I describe myself as a 76-year-old Gloucestershire woman, it makes me sound like a right old bat."

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  • SandraPee  |  September 29 2013, 9:43AM

    Lovely article . good luck to both of them . I love her attitude !