Living with Mother: Right to the Very End by Michele Hanson

Living with Mother: Right to the Very End

I didn’t like the ending. Stupid, I know. It’s right there in the title. I found it so upsetting, I ran into my mother’s bedroom, woke her up and hugged her tightly. I have been taking her for granted. She won’t be around forever and I must appreciate her more now while she still has all of her faculties despite her difficulties with her mental and physical health. The next day I ran out and bought her flowers, chocolates and her favourite cheesecake as early Mother’s Day gifts.

This is a collection of short autobiographical articles covering 10 years, originally written for the author’s column in The Guardian. We begin with an 89-year-old independent grandmother called Clarice deciding to move from her home on the coast in Brighton to live with her 54-year-old daughter and 18-year-old granddaughter in London.

Generational gaps and culture clash / shock provide plenty of friction. Friends to compete, argue and console with are entertaining distractions. And frustrations take the form of form-filling and jobsworth bureaucracy, health issues with the associated numerous endless hospital and GP appointments, the expensive no value for money nursing homes, and the appalling attitude NHS hospital staff have towards the elderly and mentally ill. Quite a few of these things I’ve experienced myself with my own mother so I sympathise.

Hanson’s mother is painted as an honest-to-a-fault, opinionated, food porn loving, make-do and mend scrimper and saver of money. She is sweet, brazen, stubborn and fascinated by all the sex on TV. In a word, she is lovable. I wish I’d had a grandma like her. As it is, my mother’s got the honest to a fault part down. Getting her to lie is impossible. Even little white ones. “Does my bum look big in this?” “Yes, you need to lose weight.” “I know! No need to tell me.”

While Michele writes in a middle-aged, southern England mildly posh and slightly melodramatic and comedic way, her daughter Amy’s extra long chapter towards the end is poignant and heartbreaking. Her grandmother’s birthday wish for many years was to die and instead she seems to receive a new ailment. A stroke causing aphasia – a difficulty in communicating, particularly talking, was the worst. A previously animated, chatty and opinionated woman is at first reduced to silence and life became one long game of Charades, and then gradually she was able to say a few words at a time but they aren’t always the right ones. Her daughter and granddaughter became excellent translators.

My mother was lucky. Her mini-strokes happened all at once, resulting in amnesia – including forgetting how to eat – and referring to herself in third person, taking months to recover.

I understood Amy’s painful guilt, her inability to watch the indignities of ageing, the simple everyday activities we carry out and take for granted that become embarrassingly difficult and messy as her grandmother’s body deteriorates and malfunctions.

It’s amazing that Clarice lasted as long as she did, to a ripe old age of 99. Had she moved into a nursing home instead, I doubt she would’ve lasted 3 years let alone 10. Michele couldn’t do that to her mother, didn’t want the guilt or the worry that goes with letting others care for someone you love. She did everything she could to keep her mother mentally and physically active, and raising Clarice’s spirits when she was depressed and longing for death.

Right now I’m doing the same. I’ve become concerned that my mother’s mental agility is in peril. Dementia has become a concern and I’ve realised she has little stimulation since she fills her day with repetitive OCD activities. The jigsaw I bought was for us to do together but I suspect the number of pieces and the complexity intimidated her. Trying to get her to read new books is a nagging exercise, in fact anything and everything I try to introduce is outright rejected or reluctantly accepted but never done. This is going to be an uphill battle.

I recommend Living with Mother to everyone because not only will many of us be responsible for caring for our parents as life expectancy increases, but we are all ageing. Hanson’s account informs us of what’s in store for us in our futures, enabling us to decide on how we’re going to cope.

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