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Sandy Kelly: No-one is caring for carers

Irish Country singing legend Sandy Kelly told David Hennessy she feels performers and carers have been forgotten in the pandemic.

Sandy Kelly, 66, is known for her Patsy Cline tributes, and has over the years shared the stage with stars like the late Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.

She recently highlighted the plight of caring for someone with special needs during the Covid-19 emergency on RTE television. It got a huge public response, she says, but nothing changed, and nothing has been done, she adds.

She has been caring fulltime for her adult daughter Barbara since before lockdown.

She told the Irish World that it has been a difficult struggle. “I spoke up on (RTE television) about my own personal situation which was a very difficult interview.

“I’ve had my daughter with special needs home fulltime since the end of February so I’m a full-time carer. We have been totally forgotten about.

“I got so fed up of nobody contacting us or helping us that I decided to speak out.

“It was difficult because you’re baring your soul and speaking negatively about someone I love dearly, which is hurtful.

“I wanted to create awareness and help everybody in my situation.

“After I did it, I knew I had done the right thing and there was a sense of relief.

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“The interview got a huge response. I got loads of cards and flowers. It made no difference.

“There’s people at breaking point. My daughter is very difficult, but she can feed herself, she can walk, she can get in and out of the bath herself, use the toilet herself.

Stock image: Sandy feels carers have gotten little help through the pandemic.

“There are people caring for their children 24/7 and they must do practically everything for them, and they are totally alone.

“I know families that have more than one child with special needs. I have a drawer of letters from people.

“At least I can take Barbara out for a walk. Granted, she’ll fight with me the whole time but at least we can do it. There are some people who are just completely housebound.”

Sandy says that even though there are respite breaks she has found looking after Barbara to be a strain.

“She’s with me from either Thursday or Friday to Monday and she would come to the gigs with me and all of that, so I get respite during the week.

“I brought her home at the beginning of the pandemic never thinking in July I still wouldn’t know when she could go back.

“I’m absolutely mentally and physically exhausted. I asked for a week for a break for me and the family in the house but for her to go back for a week, she has to be tested for Covid which would be hugely difficult.

“She’s hugely uncooperative and can be very aggressive and she’s a big girl.

“Then once she goes in there, she must self-isolate in her room for two weeks and on top of that if she goes in, she can’t come home again. That’s not really an option, is it?

Community have been checking on each other but Sandy says nothing has been done to help people like her and those in worse positions.

“Barbara is that she has multiple problems, not just one thing. She’s had brain surgery five times. She’s epileptic and on the spectrum of autism, with paranoia so she gets verbally aggressive very easily and it can go to being physically aggressive if pushed too far.

“For her to stay in a confined space for two weeks, she would give them hell in there. I couldn’t put them through that.

“I couldn’t leave her there. I felt for her own good, I needed to go straight in and bring her home. I would do it again. I wouldn’t change that. I wouldn’t have had her in there all this time and not see her.

“I wouldn’t have been able to see her and going in and waving at her through the window, she would have come out through the window.

“It’s been a very difficult lockdown for us in the house because of Barbara. As a mother, I love her like any mother would love a child. It’s a double-edged sword because I know she’s not happy either.

“In fairness, her carers in respite and the resource centre she normally attends weekly are wonderful and the nicest, most helpful people but they have to go by the rules.

“When they saw me on TV they called and put something together so that I could get a few hours, three days a week, where the carers take Barbara out and about.”

Barbara likes to control everything which includes who does and does not come into the house and Sandy says she must be wary of violent outbursts: “The physical aspect of it, I know how to avoid it. I just won’t push her to a level I know she could be physically aggressive because it has happened in the past but verbally aggressive is almost a constant thing.

“She’ll say the worst things and she’ll threaten everybody and anybody. We can’t have anybody into the house or anything like that. She won’t allow it and if they do come in, if she doesn’t want them here which is most of the time, she’ll start banging the ceiling, banging the doors, hitting windows, that kind of stuff.”

What would Sandy like to see done to help people like her and Barbara?

“I don’t know.

“I wanted somebody that knows how to fix this problem to contact me and everybody else and offer their advice and services but that didn’t happen.

“There’re meetings and talks and lists and suggestions for everything out there in the population almost but for people with special needs.

“It’s all tied up with red tape of what can be done and what can’t be done because of health and safety.”

“There’s so many things down through the years Barbara has needed medically, surgically, dentally and all of these things.

“It’s a nightmare. I might have to make six visits to the hospital before she’ll go into the room where the doctor is.

“Then we might be in the room five seconds and she’ll run out of the hospital and into the car park.

“I asked on a few occasions over the years if we could give her something to slightly sedate her so she wouldn’t be as aggressive.

“They can’t give me a sedative for her for any procedure, dentist or anything, unless she consents to it herself. What’s the chances of that?

“The HSE won’t take the risk of any blame being put on them if something happened.”

Sandy with Johnny Cash.

She also feels she and her fellow music performers are being similarly ignored or forgotten during the lockdown.

“Nobody is talking about it. It’s up to us in the industry ourselves to appoint people and voice our opinions louder.

“It’s kind of in our DNA to always keep the sunny side out. It’s up to us to always be happy and chirpy and smiling and entertaining people and all of that but it’s gotten to the stage now where really, we’re exactly like everybody else and in a worse position than most.

“All the young people out there that have bands and mortgages and children in school don’t know when they’re going to be working.

“There were hundreds of them barely getting by and now you’ve got a situation where some musicians and well-known artists are in regular jobs.

“There’s one person who has won the Eurovision Song contest, Niamh Kavanagh, working in the local Tesco in Donegal. A very well-known male singer (Robert Mizzell) who has gone back to working on the buildings.

“People seem to think in showbusiness we’re all millionaires and we don’t have the same problems as everyone else financially, medically, mentally because that’s the side we show.

“If people think of me, they think of sequins when I’m mostly here in my pyjamas going around the house.

“The glamour is not a reality at all. We don’t live glamorous lives. I wash my floors and house and do the washing and the cooking and do the dishes and make the beds the same as everybody else.

Sandy performing with Johnny Cash.

“I just don’t wear a sequin frock when I’m doing it. By the time Barbara goes back to respite, I could be,” she laughs.

Sandy says she does not play music in the house because that would be too much like taking work home and “a lot of the people that I love and worked with are gone”.

“I started writing a book a year ago. I hadn’t done an album in 26 years. My son, who is a musician himself, talked me into doing a new album and book together.

“The songs reflect the stories in the book. I went to Nashville. I hadn’t been there in quite a while and went three times in the last year and did the album, at my son’s request, at Cash Cabin where Johnny Cash did all his stuff.

“It’s owned by his son John Carter Cash. We kept in contact all through the years, so John Carter Cash and my son Willie Kelly co-produced the album. I’ve been busy.

“Looking at all the photographs and memories and memorabilia, and letters from Johnny Cash, was interesting but sad.

“I had a note from Waylon Jennings, I worked with Waylon before Johnny. I found letters from Johnny Cash. He had made me a beautiful spirit mantle. You might remember an Indian spirit mantle around his neck. He made me a replica of his.

“I found an autographed Patsy Cline picture George Hamilton IV gave me for the opening night in the West End of the Patsy Cline musical.

“He gave me the signed photograph Patsy had given his mother and father when they made supper for her back in the late ‘50s.

“I found the video tape of myself and Willie Nelson recording Crazy. It was just incredible. When I look back, it’s like a dream.”

Sandy had been set to appear in Michael English’s musical Dare to Dream but this has been delayed until next year because of Covid-19.

“Michael’s hugely talented as you know. That’s all been put off until next March hopefully.

“To be honest with you I can’t see anything else happening in between.”

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