Author Kate Mosse describes the pain and privilege of caring

Bestselling author KATE MOSSE has been a carer for her ageing parents and her mother-in-law — in her own home. In a moving new book, she describes…The pain and privilege of caring for those who cared for you

  • Author Kate Mosse describes being a carer for parents and her mother-in-law
  • She documents her story in a moving new book, An Extra Pair Of Hands
  • Writes about how closely grief and care and love are wrapped up together
  • Also reveals how by the age of 59, women have a 50-50 chance of being a carer 

My dazzling and wonderful mother, Barbara Mosse, died on the shortest day of the year, a day she’d always hated. December 21, 2014.

It was the week before Christmas and she’d been writing her cards, buying last-minute stocking presents, having lunch with her two closest girlfriends and performing on stage with the entertainment group she was part of, alongside my mother-in-law, Granny Rosie.

Then, in a matter of hours, her breathing compromised by COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), she was gone. She died on a pale winter’s morning when the trees were bare of leaves.

My beloved father, Richard Mosse, had died three years earlier on a pretty green and silver afternoon in May — yellow roses and the red of the camellia, the dappled light from the sweet chestnut tree.

Kate Mosse describes finding herself, in middle age, as a carer for her ageing parents and her mother-in-law in a moving new book, An Extra Pair Of Hands

He died, a few days shy of his 87th birthday, in his own bed in our house on the corner where three generations lived together. Prepared for the next adventure, he was peaceful and calm in his leave-taking. Ma’s was different. Sudden, unexpected, devastating. She was only 83.

An Extra Pair Of Hands is my memoir, a story about finding myself, in middle age, a carer of three extraordinary older people living with my husband and I in our home in West Sussex: first, helping my heroic mother care for my father, who suffered with Parkinson’s; then, holding a watching brief for her as she negotiated life without him after nearly 60 years of marriage; finally, in these past few years, as a full-time ‘extra pair of hands’ for Granny Rosie.

Looking back to those early days of caring, then bereavement, I’ve realised how closely grief and care and love are wrapped up together. I remember the numbness and the sense of being cast adrift. I remember feeling at a loss as to what to do to fill my time.

I loved my parents very much and miss them. I still find myself longing to tell my mother when something special happens, then catch my breath when I remember she’s not here. 

Or thinking about walking with my father through our Sussex landscape when I was little and wishing I could still point out how the blackthorn on Fishbourne Marshes is early in flower this year, or how the rooks are nesting high in the sycamore tree.

But writing has also reminded me how the sharpness of loss fades as the years pass. How you’re left with the aftertones of grief, rather than grief itself.

More than ever, it’s reinforced how care is an act of love.

It can be a tough gig — too many days, you feel you’re failing. Some days, it feels as if whatever you do isn’t enough to make things better and it’s distressing watching someone you love struggle or be in pain or confused.

The bestselling author is a full-time ‘extra pair of hands’ for her mother-in-law Granny Rosie, 90, who according to Kate,  still has a zest for life that ‘puts the rest of us to shame’

It can be remorseless, the same tasks repeated over and again until the days all run together — medication, laundry, hospital appointments, food.

It’s an odd, even disquieting, role reversal when you realise you’re caring for those who once cared for you.

Many women will become carers just at the moment that they are poleaxed by menopause and all that goes with it.

There will be hard days, and even harder nights, when self-esteem and confidence in yourself takes a battering. In those treacherous hours in the middle of the night — and we all have these — when you wonder if you will ever sleep without worrying. It takes a toll.

The NHS gives the official definition of a carer as ‘anyone, including children and adults, who looks after a family member, partner or friend who needs help because of their illness, frailty, disability, a mental health problem or an addiction and cannot cope without their support. The care they give is unpaid’.

All the same, it’s a tricky word — carer. It brings with it a hint of transaction, of an inequality, which is all the more uncomfortable if you’re caring for someone you love.

She misses her late parents and longs to tell her mother when something special happens. Pictured: Richard and Barbara Mosse celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 2004

By using it, however true it might be in terms of the day-to-day, there’s a risk it will redefine a partnership, a balanced give-and-take relationship, and turn it into an obligation: carer and cared-for.

One is active, the other is passive, whereas every carer knows there’s nearly always some kind of reciprocity even in the darkest hours.

You are still you, and they are still they.

Carers UK estimates there could be as many as 8.8 million adult unpaid carers in the UK, a number that’s expected to shoot up in the next 20 years.

Each year, some 2.1 million adults take on unpaid caring responsibilities for an elderly or disabled relative — and, give or take, about the same number find their role as a carer coming to an end.

There are many sole carers, with no family support, and a distressingly growing number of young carers looking after parents or siblings — the Children’s Society estimates there might be as many as 800,000 young people between the ages of five and 17 caring. More than a million carers are caring for more than one person — a figure that rocketed during the Covid pandemic.

My husband and I met at school when we were 15. He knew and loved my parents, as I know and love his mother, Granny Rosie.

Our two sets of families were already entwined, and that made it easier for us to support one another. But, for many people it’s more complicated.

And the reality of care is that the biggest responsibility falls predominantly on daughters and daughters-in-law.

If you’re reading this, odds are you are in a similar position or that you know someone who is. By the age of 59, women have a 50-50 chance of being a carer. (Men don’t have those odds until they hit 75, which suggests that most are caring for a wife or partner rather than elderly parents.)

Nurses, accountants, teachers, retail workers, chemists, builders, CEOs, social workers, architects, homemakers, musicians, designers, vets, receptionists, novelists — we are everywhere, hidden in plain sight. In other words, my experience is common.

It began in 1998 with Granny Rosie. My husband and I were moving home to Sussex with our eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son, after a decade in London, and wondered if Rosie might like to come and live with us.

Kate and her husband invited Granny Rosie to come and live with her family in 1998 when they moved back home to Sussex. Pictured: Kate and Granny Rosie

A few months later, bringing her electric piano, books and clothes but otherwise travelling light, she moved in. A ramshackle house in Bognor, a real fixer-upper. She was the kind of Granny who did cartwheels in the garden, who ate chips on the seashore, who played games.

She was a brilliant extra pair of hands for two working parents. It wasn’t until 2009 that my parents threw their lot in with us, too. My father had lived with Parkinson’s for many years, but it was becoming clear that my mother was going to need more support in the years ahead if she was to continue to live as herself, to be herself.

A different house this time, it was the beginning of our two families — three generations — living together under one roof. My parents had their own annexe designed to be wheelchair accessible, our now teenage children popped in and out with their friends and we often sat down together for a scratch supper on a Saturday evening.

For me, it was the beginning of becoming, and learning how to be, a carer, though each experience would be different.

It was the beginning of learning to live differently, to think about time differently. In our working lives — particularly those women of my generation who were always being told to keep our domestic lives hidden — we’re encouraged to think of speed equalling efficiency.

When you’re a carer, you have to break free of the ‘the faster you complete a task, the better’ mentality. You learn that letting someone do things at their own pace is more important than getting it done. 

It’s about listening and not stepping in, independence and agency. Things take as long as they take. It’s about patience, forgetting the clock, embracing the smallest everyday moments of triumph.

I was — and am — in a privileged position. Our children are now grown-up, my husband and I are a team, my sisters and brothers-in-law are nearby, we have space and we both work from home.

Though some things in my professional life had to change — plays not finished, projects not started, never going out without a back-up plan — writing is something I can do anywhere. After my mother’s death, my desk was waiting for me when I was ready to go back to work.

Kate reveals how by the age of 59, women have a 50-50 chance of being a carer – just at the moment they are poleaxed by the menopause and all that goes with it

Too many women have to give up paid work in order to be a full-time carer, too many have no additional help, and there is a postcode lottery for support services.

Of course, everyone’s situation will be influenced by where they live, their resources, their ethnicity, their own health or needs. Added to that, many are caring for people for whom they have little affection, or who never cared for them.

And the challenges on those caring for those with dementia or Alzheimer’s, who might no longer recognise their own daughter or sister or husband, are immense.

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is this: that even in the darkest days — and there will be many dark days — there is joy.

There are always memories, thinking of the wonderful times in the past, and understanding that it is these shared stories that will make the loss that will inevitably come so much more painful.

There is a great deal of pleasure in getting to know your parents as people, to understand what they were like before they were your mother and father. To know your mother-in-law. To have time, simply, to talk.

An Extra Pair Of Hands (£12.99, Wellcome Collection) is out on June 3

So here we still live — my husband, wonderful Granny Rosie and me — in this house on the corner where three roads meet. Rosie and I have a pretty set routine, refined during lockdown. 

I’ll be in my office tapping away, my husband will be working upstairs, Rosie will be at her end of the kitchen table. When the sun is over the yardarm, a G&T for her, a glass of white wine and a detective story for me.

Though she’s in a wheelchair now, she’s never still. Through her knitting, she’s raised thousands of pounds for Chestnut Tree House, our local children’s hospice — this month’s project is a maypole and knitted dancers.

Rosie loves her grandchildren and jigsaws, taking a spin round the block in the afternoon when the weather’s warm, her crosswords and Scrabble with a friend. 

She’s 90 now but, on her good days, she still has a zest for life that puts the rest of us to shame.

An Extra Pair Of Hands is a book about the nature of memory, about ageing well and dying well, about losing your sense of self, about trying and failing simultaneously, about loss and learning to live with grief, about juggling work deadlines and becoming unreliable, about our fading selves and absence, about exhaustion, about partnership, about being lucky enough to be in a position to repay a lifetime of caring.

But, in the end, it’s a story about love.   

An Extra Pair Of Hands (£12.99, Wellcome Collection) is out on June 3. 

Carers Week UK: Making Caring Visible And Valued runs June 7 to 12.  

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