‘She still looks like my mother but I am parenting her now’

Younger carers have to juggle raising their own children with minding an elderly parent

Tue, Jul 29, 2014, 13:53

It was a Mother’s Day full of guilt for Deirdre Fallon Sheehan last March. She had made a lovely cream cake for her 77-year-old mam but she was also packing a suitcase to bring her to a nursing home the next morning.

Gertrude Fallon, who has dementia, was going in for only a week’s respite care but it was the first time. The family were in two minds about availing of the opportunity, but had been advised they were lucky to get it and they would need it in the future.

“I felt so bad. It was like putting my child into an orphanage,” says Deirdre. Gertrude “wasn’t happy and she wouldn’t eat”.

Visiting her, “you start seeing things and start trying to fix them”, says Deirdre. In the end she, her only sibling, Colette, and their father, JJ, “basically ended up in there for the week with her”.

However, after what had been a frenetic few months, it proved to be a turning point for Deirdre, who is an example of the so-called “sandwich generation”, pulled in both directions as she mothers not only her children, Murray (seven) and Devin (six), but also an elderly parent.

She had a serious talk with herself about unwarranted guilt, how the family were doing a good job but that this was for the long term. She realised she could be dealing with the grief of gradually losing her mother for another 10 years and that it must not affect her relationship with her own sons.

‘Absolute ignorance’

When Deirdre first heard, not long after Murray was born, that her mother was in the early stages of dementia, she received the news “with absolute ignorance”. She thought it meant a person would forget a bit and couldn’t be relied on to pass on a vital message.

“That’s the easy part; they don’t tell you about the personality changes. You’re basically living with somebody who you’ve known all your life and you don’t know them at all.”

It’s hard to pinpoint when they first noticed changes. “It’s like a light bulb very, very slowly being turned down.”

Deirdre had lived in Dublin for 20 years but five years ago, she and her husband, Ciarán, decided to move back to her native Co Longford to raise their own family.

Before that, they used to go down to visit her parents at weekends.

Describing Gertrude as a real “country mother”, whose life revolved around her home, Deirdre says the key was always in the door “and if you ran in and Mammy wasn’t there, she had been kidnapped”.

In more recent years they noticed her pulling back on the cooking and so they told her they would pick up takeaways before landing in on her, rather than expecting her to prepare dinner.

After Deirdre and her family moved into their new home in Ardagh, about 20km from her parents’ house, her mother seemed a bit confused when visiting, but she put that down to the unfamiliar surroundings. Overall, Gertrude seemed fine and was still chatty on the phone, although she might repeat herself a little.

Peculiar habits

Then, about two years ago, they noticed her developing some peculiar habits, such as taking out the cardboard from the inside of the kitchen towel and toilet rolls, as to her mind it was rubbish. It was around then that Deirdre and Colette decided to take over the cooking of daily dinners for their parents, splitting the week between them.

Gertrude gradually became less forthcoming on the phone and, towards the end of last year, would sometimes just hang up mid-conversation.

“I noticed in the couple of months coming up to Christmas that her walk wasn’t great and she would step over things – as if there were mounds, that weren’t there.”

But on December 7th, her father went out briefly to the shops and on his return found Gertrude on the ground.

“It was very evident that her hip was broken. But she was as cool as a breeze – I would have seen her more tizzied over burning toast in years gone by,” Deirdre says.

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