How my gran changed my life

When her grandmother got dementia, Sophie Howarth gave up a promising career to move in as her carer. She explains why it's the best decision she ever made

Of all the things you expect to be doing as a 23-year-old graduate with a great job (and even better prospects), giving it all up to move in with your grandmother to care for her full-time isn't one of them. Especially if your gran has severe dementia. But that's what happened to me and what an eye-opener it has been, changing my personality, my career path and my whole attitude to life profoundly.

Dementia is relentless, depressing and debilitating. And that's just for the carer. There were days, in the months after I moved from a busy London life to be with my gran in her small Derbyshire village, that I wondered if I myself was going mad. I was certainly very low. She'd ask the same question again and again and again. And if I dared have a quick shower, I would often get the inevitable phone call. "Your gran's outside the post office in her nighty, love." This was a job harder than any employer could have thrown at me and it was 24/7, with an income of just £53 a week. I lasted just shy of two years. Not that I'm complaining. I have no regrets and would do it again in an instant.

It will come as no surprise that I've always been close to my gran. I grew up with my mum and my brother and sister and we enjoyed many summers with her in Anglesey. We stayed the whole six weeks and we loved every moment. She wasn't gregarious. If anything, she was reserved. But she came out of herself when children were around. When she moved to live round the corner, we couldn't have been happier.

She never forgot a single detail about our lives and she was so proud of us. When we took up karate, she came to watch every competition and she'd save every newspaper cutting. She was generous, too, presenting us with a huge box of treats every Christmas, a great luxury in our house.

By the time I was in secondary school, rare was the day that Gran didn't come round. But around the time I went to university to study a BSc in counselling psychology, things changed. Her normally pristine house was a bit messy. She came round less and she forgot things.

Finally, after I'd landed my dream job in London on a graduate scheme working with autistic children, Gran got diagnosed with dementia. I had an appalling sinking feeling, but it was tinged with relief. Her odd behaviour was explainable.

A year into my job, I visited Gran and was shocked to find her sleeping on her sofa and failing to wash properly. She'd become a terrible hoarder, making the place a deathtrap with her stuff. "It's time for a care home," I told my mum, but we both knew Gran would loathe it. Then it hit me. I could care for her. I'd saved up a bit from my job and it's not as if I'd have rent to pay if I lived with her. It was a spontaneous decision, but I'd never been more sure of anything. I wept as I handed in my notice – I'd never enjoyed a job so much – and my friends were amazed at my decision, but I was adamant.

I moved in on my 23rd birthday. I felt energetic and gung-ho and Gran's relief was apparent. I got the place tidy and clean, as well as Gran's eating and personal hygiene back on track. Anything she could do for herself, I made sure she did – I merely guided her. We enjoyed each other's company, chatting about everything from TV programmes to politics.

But the nights were awful. She became convinced she had work the following day. It would take two hours to get her in bed. Sometimes, I'd find myself going along with it. "Violet won't be coming in tomorrow," I'd say into the phone. I felt awful lying but it settled her mind.

The weeks passed and I became bored and claustrophobic. By 10am, the house was spotless, but if I left the room, she'd be out on the streets, lost. There were times I realised I hadn't left the house for a fortnight. But it was worth it.

Then, about six months in, she deteriorated rapidly. She obsessed about things and asked the same questions up to 100 times in a single day. "When am I going to work? Where am I?" I'd want to tear my hair out. If anything went wrong, which it frequently did (Gran sneaking outside and hurting herself when I wasn't looking; Gran hanging the washing over the gas fire when I nipped to the loo), I felt guilty. I often felt upset, too – she increasingly snapped at me.

A wonderful social worker (who once walked an hour in the snow to check we were OK) helped enormously. She got Gran into a daycare centre two afternoons a week and told me about the carer's allowance. It wasn't much, and I still marvel how other people survive on £53 a week, but my money was dwindling fast after paying for the food and phone bills, so it was something.

Over the next year, Gran got worse until eventually I was unable to just breathe in some outside air for fear of her causing harm. I was too tired to go out on her respite days and I felt I had nothing to talk about with friends anyway. I worried about money and my career, although mostly I just worried about Gran. Some days, she said there was nothing in her head – she meant she couldn't form a thought. It was excruciating to watch her just try to exist – that's all she was trying to do.

It didn't help that we were both sleep-deprived. She'd regularly wake me up through the night with her questions. I got three hours a night if I was lucky.

There were good days – days when I thought, "You can do this, you're making a difference," and they kept me going. Then, when my partner was home from Afghanistan, where he'd been serving in the military, we took a holiday while Gran went into respite care.

But Gran was in hospital with a badly broken arm when I got back. I was so angry. It had never happened in my care and I was on my own. It set her back hugely and by the time we both got home, I could no longer cope.

Just over a year ago, we found a good local care home and although I miss her like mad, I know it's the best place for her. Although she has some lucid moments on my daily visits, she's mostly confused and is now losing her balance.

I'll continue living in Gran's house just until I've done it up to sell it to pay for her care. Then I shall retrain. I've decided I want to work with adults with mental-health issues – what could be more rewarding?

Some days, I hardly recognise myself from the person I was before living with Gran. At 25, I'm more resilient than I could ever have imagined. Nothing could upset me as much as it did during those two years. I feel different from my friends, too – older than my years, somehow, although not in a bad way.

It's put things into perspective for me as well. If I think I'm having a bad day, I remember what genuinely bad days feel like. I also think my self-esteem is higher – not in a smug way, but I feel proud and lucky to have had the opportunity to stay with my gran when I did. Life throws all sorts of unexpected things at you, but I feel ready for anything now.

Interview by Kate Hilpern

Free information about Alzheimer's disease and related dementias is available from Alzheimer's Research UK by calling 01223 843899 or online at alzheimersresearchuk.org

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Life and Style
fashion
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Quantitative Developer

    £700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

    Web developer (C#, MVC4, HTML5, CSS3, Javascript, Jquery)

    £30000 - £44000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Web deve...

    Senior Automation QA Engineer (Java, Selenium WebDriver, Agile)

    £40000 - £65000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Senior A...

    Web developer (C#.NET, ASP.NET, MVC3/4, HTML5, CSS3, JAVASCRIPT

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Web deve...

    Day In a Page

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment