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

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
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

    Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

    £22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

    Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

    Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

    Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

    £70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions