By DEBORAH MOGGACH
The Daily Mail, 8 July 2019
Published as ‘Why all I felt was relief when my mother died’
It sounds a callous confession. But in this utterly candid account, novelist Deborah Moggach dares to tell the truth about caring for a parent ravaged by dementia. Deborah Moggach said she didn’t cry when her mother Charlotte Hough died. The British novelist felt she had already lost the person she’d loved three years earlier to dementia. Her beloved mother had been a lively, witty children’s writer and illustrator . . . but by the age of 80 she was getting increasingly odd in her ways.
British novelist Deborah Moggach shown with her mother Charlotte (top right) who had been jailed in 1984, aged 60, for the mercy killing of an old lady who had pleaded for her help in committing suicide.
When my mother died I didn’t cry. Quite honestly, I was simply relieved. The person I’d loved had long since gone, lost to dementia three years earlier.
It was the classic pattern. My mother Charlotte Hough was a lively, witty children’s writer and illustrator.
She’d always been a bit eccentric. She adored the mice that ran around in her larder. If someone gave her a compliment, she would write it down and paste it in her scrapbook.
Deborah’s mother Charlotte, PICTURED at 60,
20 years before getting dementia.
By the age of 80, however, she was getting increasingly odd.
I remember gardening with her and noticing that she was pulling out all the plants and leaving the weeds, whistling tunelessly under her breath. She was becoming obsessive too, firing off angry notes to people who’d offended her and endlessly ‘sorting out’ her paperwork, which seemed to remain exactly the same. Her personality was changing.
And then she broke her leg and went to hospital. When things are mentally slipping, one clings to small routines—walking the dog, buying the paper—and hospital destroys all that. When she left she seemed to have visibly shrunk into a confused and frightened old lady.
At that time I lived opposite her and for a while, with the help of my sister, we could cope. The confusion came and went. Sometimes she’d be fine, then she’d suddenly ask: ‘What university did my dog go to?’
We took her for tests. To my astonishment, the doctors would ask her questions, rather than us: ‘How much do you drink?’ ‘Have you ever had a stroke?’
Then they’d solemnly write down her replies, even though she was giving them the wrong answers.
Didn’t they realise? We’d have to semaphore madly over her head.
Anyway, she was finally diagnosed with vascular dementia. We agreed on two things: one that we needed help. And two, that we didn’t want to put her into a home. Her familiar surroundings were terribly important and her house had a spare bedroom for live-in help. We started searching for a carer.
At the hospital we’d met a lovely, gentle Irish woman, who had been massaging the feet of an elderly patient, and we’d taken her phone number. So we rang her and found that her patient had just died.
She agreed to be our mother’s carer with the help of two other Irish friends of hers. They’d take it in rotas, around the clock. They called themselves carers even though they had no particular qualifications or references, but we were desperate, we liked them, and we thought it would just be a temporary thing until we’d got a proper plan in place.
We never did. With dementia, I realised, one lurches from moment to moment, from one crisis to another, and there’s never a second to sort things out. It’s like having a small child.
So these three chatty, capable Irish women moved into our lives and thus began the most extraordinary two years.
For I was plunged into intimacy with three strangers, who quickly became indispensable.
As my mother became more of a stranger, they became closer than family. Old age is not for cissies. Being a carer is not for cissies, either. Most of us can’t cope with it, and employ someone else to do the dirty work. They did this, in rotation, and left me free to carry on with my life.
And what a rollercoaster of emotions this released! I adored them, they were life-savers, and we had some surprisingly larky times together. I was deeply grateful to them, while also, ridiculously, resenting their increasing intimacy with someone who was withdrawing from me into her final illness. I disapproved of the way they infantilised her, even dressed her, while recognising I had no right to criticise, no right at all.
Needless to say, I felt chronically guilty. I was her daughter, I should be doing this rather than sitting in my house opposite, trying to write a novel.
Sometimes I resented the huge amount of money they were costing—in cash—and the daily trips to my local hole in the wall.
And sometimes I felt jealous that my mother seemed fonder of them than of me, rather like a child loving its nanny more than its parents. Because they were earning her love, even as she was subtly changing and becoming, well, theirs.
In other words, I was locked into a relationship that’s becoming increasingly common as the elderly population explodes. But few people talk about it. We rely more and more on these strangers, who enter into the heart of our families and get to know our secrets.
So I decided to write a novel about it.
The novelist Deborah Moggach (pictured) in her study
The Carer is the story of an elderly professor and his middle-aged son and daughter, who are too busy having unhappy marriages and unsuitable love affairs to look after their old dad. They engage a carer called Mandy who arrives, armed with Marigold gloves and a chirpy disposition, to take their father off their hands.
To their surprise he undergoes something of a transformation. Suddenly this distinguished and rather posh old man is enjoying jaunts to Nando’s and shopping malls; he becomes addicted to scratchcards and daytime telly.
Mandy’s company has opened up a whole new world to him, which he seems to relish. His children secretly disapprove of this lifestyle change — the chap has an OBE! — but who are they to criticise? Besides, he looks happier than he’s been for years.
There’s plenty of comedy in the book, as there was in my own situation.
I remember my mother telling us, with great solemnity: ‘There were two men in my bedroom last night. One was in the wardrobe and the other was under my bed. I’ve never believed in threesomes and I’m not going to start now.’
Oh it was grim and gruelling, and there were dark times, but the carers and I entertained each other with gossip about our chequered love lives—one of them, Sinead, was having an affair with a baggage handler at Luton airport and would read out his saucy texts over my mother’s dozing body. Even Mum got the giggles.
And I learnt a lot from them about how to cope with dementia. At first I was surprised that they colluded with my mother’s pronouncements.
Sometimes she thought she was living in a hotel and started complaining about it, so they packed her a suitcase, took her around the block and arrived back home.
‘This is a much nicer hotel, isn’t it sweetheart?’ they said. She’d nod happily and settle back in.
I didn’t like them lying to her until they explained that telling the truth just adds to the distress and confusion, and I realised they were right.
Best of all, they treated her like a human being. It helped that she was in her own home, filled with photos and memories of her hugely interesting life. During her stays in hospital, she’d simply been a body in a bed. If only someone had pinned up a photo of her when she was younger, with a little biography.
Charlotte PICTURED as a young girl, enjoying life
In hospital she was only touched in a medical way—to be turned over, or given an injection. Back home, however, her carers gave her loving massages, rubbing her with scented oils. She’d never been a great one for touching—I don’t remember her ever hugging me—but she practically purred.
Her personality was changing so profoundly that, by now, I couldn’t recognise her as my mother. Her very face had changed shape. Nor, indeed, could she recognise me as her daughter.
The last months were pretty terrible. She was obstreperous, incontinent and utterly miserable. A series of strokes left her bedbound. Bouts of pneumonia nearly killed her, but she was always hauled back by the miracles of modern medicine.
I thought: this could go on for years. It was only too obvious that she wanted to die.
I’ve long been a patron of ‘Dignity in Dying’ and strongly believe in our right to have control over our own death. The irony of my mother’s situation was not lost on me. For, 20 years earlier, she herself had helped an old lady to die.
Unfortunately, someone betrayed Mum; she was charged with murder, tried at the Old Bailey and sent to prison. In fact it had become a slightly sick family joke that whenever anyone wanted to end their life, we’d chant, ‘Call for Charlotte!’
It happened like this. In her 60s my mother used to visit an old woman called Anita, who lived in sheltered housing down the road.
Anita was extremely ill and utterly friendless, and one day she told my mother she’d decided to commit suicide and could my mother sit with her while she did it?
Sobering: The Mail’s coverage of Charlotte’s court case in 1984.
She had helped an old lady to die, writes Deborah
As you can imagine, this was a big ask.
My mother hardly knew Anita, and was quite aware of the risks. But she agreed and went to Anita’s room on the intended evening. Anita had it all prepared—the pills, the ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ note, the whisky. She also had a plastic bag, which she asked my mother to put over her head if the pills didn’t work.
And they didn’t. After four hours Anita was in a coma, but still breathing. Dawn was breaking and soon the warden would be coming round to check on the residents, so my mother did indeed put a plastic bag over Anita’s head and tied it with a ribbon. Soon Anita stopped breathing, at which point my mother took off the bag, put it in her pocket, and left.
It was an incredibly courageous thing to do. The trouble was, Charlotte was chronically indiscreet.
She told me and my sister and we kept quiet, but she must have confided in someone else because a few days later she was arrested.
It was a hugely traumatic experience for her — the trial, the publicity, the six months in prison. (The plea was changed to ‘Attempted Murder’, which had a shorter sentence.)
Being a woman of 60, and rather upper class, she was mercilessly bullied when she was inside. My sister and I visited her once a fortnight and each time she seemed to have shrunk.
I thought about this a lot during those final months of my mother’s life. She was simply a husk, a shell of her former self and there seemed absolutely no point in her continuing to live.
In the end she died peacefully, her Jack Russell on her bed. Afterwards, when clearing out her things, I read her old letters.
She was a wonderfully funny, vivid writer and suddenly I could hear her voice, the old Charlotte, as if she were with me in the room. That voice even sung out through the formality of the trial transcripts.
Just then I had her back, and that’s the memory I’ll keep with me. Not the last years, but the years when Charlotte was Charlotte.
And I’ll always be grateful to those three Irish women, who cared for her in a way I never could, and who have long ago disappeared from my life. I never even knew their surnames.