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

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
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
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
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

    Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

    £300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

    High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

    £70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

    Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

    Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

    £400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits