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Wed 11 December 2019
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Otto English shares the story of his mother Hannah, who has Alzheimer’s, and has been abandoned by a Conservative Government which has delivered nothing on social care for the elderly.


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My mum was sitting on a garden table, swinging her legs, as my daughter – then four years old – brought her weeds to make into a little posy. I was washing up in the kitchen watching the scene as my cousin dried the dishes.

“She looks almost childlike, doesn’t she,” my relative said casually.

In that moment, my world turned upside down.

In truth, I knew already. Hannah, my mother, who had been so sharp and ‘with it’ well into her late 70s, had not taken to turning 80 very well. Something was wrong with her.

The fridge was always empty when we pitched up. The milk was always off. Sometimes, she would seem surprised to see us at the door, even though I’d rung her before we set off. She was always losing keys. “I think I’m losing my marbles as well!” she’d say brightly when we found them and we’d laugh and carry on.

But, as I watched her take wild flowers from my daughter, that spring afternoon – now some seven years ago – I realised, finally, that this was more than just old age. Something was very wrong.

You should have seen Hannah in her prime. The sixth daughter of a family of seven, who had grown up just outside Stoke-on-Trent, she was like some force of nature.

“She was always too good for us,” my late Aunt Audrey would say. “Always said she was going somewhere.”

When she passed the 11-plus my grandfather told her that she wouldn’t be able to go to grammar school because he couldn’t afford the bus fare. So she told him she’d walk instead. You didn’t mess with Hannah.

In the 1960s, she moved to London and worked as a secretary for a Conservative MP. She was tall, dark-haired, beautiful, funny, clever and gregarious. My father never stood a chance.

After my sister and I were born, they moved to an Essex village and Hannah took on the task of befriending everyone. You couldn’t walk down the road or get on a train without someone greeting her like a long-lost friend. 

In her 50s, she went back to work and ended up running a charity. She threw herself as passionately at that as she did everything else. 

It didn’t matter who you were with Hannah. She’d talk to everyone and anyone.

At social or political events, she knew no fear, accosting people she thought looked interesting and then sticking the party out to the bitter end. She was a brilliant storyteller, who could turn the most anodyne event into an epic tale of struggle, defiance or tragi-comedy. 

She could hold a grudge like nobody else – right up until the point when all was suddenly forgiven. She was also fiercely loyal to her children, even when we didn’t deserve it. She was just plain bloody wonderful. 

And very slowly, very painfully, she started to slip away.


Darkness

Some weeks after she and my daughter had gathered those flowers, I found that I couldn’t get through to her on the phone.

In a panic, I dropped everything and drove up to our old family home and found her asleep on the sofa. She had somehow burned her arm and I managed to convince her to come with me to the see the doctor.

At the surgery, the GP took me to one side and said she was worried about my mum and had been for some time. Hannah didn’t know how she had scolded her arm and the doctor convinced her, much against her will, to do a memory test. 

Eventually a diagnosis came. As we suspected, it was Alzheimer’s.

In typical fashion, she refused to accept it and tried to carry on. But, as the illness encroached, the darkness enveloped us all.

Our family home, once such a haven and filled with memories of my late dad and four decades of life, became a monster. On my weekly visits, I didn’t know what I might find. We had to get her out of there or she would die.

You might think that having had that diagnosis there would have been agencies to step in and help and guide us. Not a bit of it. A young, well-meaning woman from a charity came round and gave us some leaflets and talked about “options”. Hannah listened intently and kept saying “I see”. After she’d, gone mum put the leaflets in the recycling bin and made a cup of tea. 

Hannah was deeply resistant to the idea of a care home. It was only when she was so confused as to no longer know quite what was going on, that we managed to get her to move. Once cherished possessions were dumped like junk.  

Nowhere in any of this – beyond the diagnosis and the amazing GP – was the NHS. My mother had private healthcare, but it was meaningless. We were one our own, cast like flotsam into an ocean of fear.

“I won’t abandon you,” I used to say. 

“I know you won’t darling, everything will be fine,” she’d reply. But I knew that wasn’t true. I knew how it was all going to end.


Nothing

Since 2015, my mum has lain in bed. Lost to the world, lost to me, lost to her grandchildren and her friends and her memories and fears.

Her savings have slowly drained away. The money doesn’t matter to me, but I’m angry anyway. I’m angry that after a lifetime of graft, my mum can be just abandoned by the state to waste away.

As the General Election approaches, the Tories are out and about making promises again. They know who votes for them and they need to keep the elderly sweet.

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock has this week been busying himself about the place, promising to solve the elderly healthcare crisis – to help people like my mum “live in dignity” and keep their homes as they grow old. 

That’s Matt Hancock of the Conservative Government, which has been in charge of this country for more than nine years. That’s the Tory Government that has been in power all the time my mother and thousands like her have been going through this hell. 

The Conservatives promised in 2010 to solve this problem – and again in 2015 and 2017. In the years in between, they have done nothing. Not one single thing.

For a decade they have talked the talk at election time and failed to deliver on a word of it.

So thank you, Mr Hancock, for your empty promises and your good intentions – although they have come a little late for my mum. I’m sure there will be plenty of people willing to believe you, but in modern Britain there’s no end of voters happy to believe in unicorns.


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