If her book tells us anything, it is that it should not have taken coronavirus to endow this topic with the urgency it deserves. Labours of Love is a tour de force, weaving what is, at times, an unbearably poignant tapestry of history, literature and economics, alongside strands of Bunting’s personal biography, to show us a society in which care has been progressively devalued even as medical advances mean that more and more of us will live to require it.
Labours of Love is a fine achievement. It is full of humanity. I found it utterly absorbing and, unpopular though the word is, humbling. Though they are frequently worn out from the Sisyphean labour of “rolling back anguish”, the care workers she speaks to remain endlessly curious about their patients or clients, wanting to hear life stories. They often belittle their efforts – “it’s nothing”, they say. “It’s a privilege.” But they are doing the work that really matters.
Given the pandemic, Bunting’s writing on care homes, where she volunteers, feels particularly poignant. Nursing homes were shuttered by Covid-19 and socially distanced visits only recently restarted in many — not all — homes. Bunting learns to give hand massages for dementia patients as, while the disease erodes comprehension, touch can be an “effective way to communicate reassurance”. So what harm is the current lack of touching doing to the elderly in these homes? Even before the crisis, Bunting writes that some residents did little more than sit and wait to die.