It’s October and three of us are heading towards the shore of Loch Rannoch: me, my four-year-old, Elena, charging ahead, and Mum, who is struggling to keep up. We’re a stone’s throw from our family home in the Scottish Highlands and have walked here a million times before. Never this slowly, though.
‘Do come on Mum,’ I’m brusque and my body language is impatient. ‘Whoopsie,’ she pants, and I pretend not to hear her breathlessness. Finally I snap: ‘Next time, I think you should stay at home.’
It’s a cruel thing to say, given how much my mum, Anthea, cherishes these walks. When it’s time to wave goodbye and return to London, I am flooded with remorse. That night I post a picture of us on Twitter – Mum, Elena and me at the edge of the loch – along with the message: ‘Bye bye to my old mum, who waved us off this morning. I’m not always as kind to you as I should be or as patient, but I love you very much.’
However I feel no better about my strop. Why did I have to be such a brute? What is wrong with me?
TV historian Tessa Dunlop, pictured with her mother, Anthea, right, gets frustrated because the 80-year-old is no longer as quick as she used to be
Anthea Dunlop, left, pictured with Tessa in the 1970s lives in the Scottish highlands and still enjoys walking along the edge of the local loch, though is slower than she used to be
Underneath, if I probe, I know what the problem is: I can’t bear the idea of Mum fading into old age.
Ridiculously, aged 48, I am still clinging on to the fantasy that she will live for ever. And there is even a name for what I’m feeling: Anticipatory grief.
We tend to think of grief as something which happens after someone we care about dies. In fact, the process can begin years before, although it’s rarely acknowledged or talked about.
Mum and I don’t know exactly what the future will hold but it all feels much less certain, and scarier, than it used to.
If I close my eyes I can still see her in full flight: coat flapping, arms outstretched and ever the welcoming host.
It has been 14 years since my father died. Mum cared for Dad until he succumbed to cancer, aged 69, in 2009. Then 67, she went on to rebuild her life in the same remote Highland village where I grew up, Kinloch Rannoch. There was no question that she might relocate somewhere more accessible, or downsize.
A teaching job was replaced with volunteering, and a couple of travel ambitions were fulfilled. So far so good.
According to Adam Gordon, Professor for the Care of Older People at Nottingham University, Mum did what too few pensioners do in their first years of retirement: she celebrated her newfound freedom and remaining good health.
Prof Gordon explains that while ‘the average life expectancy in the UK is 87 for a woman, the healthy life expectancy is 77’. That means that after retirement, the average woman has about ten years of healthy life ahead of her.
This precious window of well being (never guaranteed) does not go on for ever.
Tessa, pictured with her mother, right, and daughter Elena, centre, said: ‘Having enjoyed a lifetime of her support, care and indulgence, the roles are now reversed – Mum needs my help, and I find that difficult’
Now, aged 80, Mum’s world has changed: there are numerous daily pills, constant pain, a bad back, a weak heart and a lung condition. These are all little(ish) things that add up to what Prof Gordon, who’s also president of the British Geriatrics Society, says confront most people at the end of their lives – ‘the eight to ten years of living with illness and deterioration’.
And it’s Mum’s increasing frailty – and loss of confidence – that trigger a visceral response in me.
Having enjoyed a lifetime of her support, care and indulgence, the roles are now reversed – Mum needs my help, and I find that difficult.
In denial, I tried to send her on a residential writing course for her recent birthday, and couldn’t understand why she didn’t go. I can’t accept that she struggles to climb the stairs. I quickly move her on from discussions about her health that I find challenging to hear. Sometimes I behave no better than my four-year-old when she sticks her fingers in her ears and shouts: ‘No, no, no!’
Part of the problem lies in Mum’s refusal to give in to her declining health. She boils with frustration at her increasing disability. She says: ‘I like having visitors but I struggle to carry a tray into the sitting room. I love my garden but it has become a chore.’
She no longer plays tennis, often relies on the neighbour to walk her dog and sometimes falls over putting on trousers. Mum oscillates between denial and feeling profoundly depressed about her uncomfortable new reality.
Tessa said: ‘When my father died I was in my early 30s, child-free and less bound by work. I was by Dad’s side for much of his illness. But things are less simple now. Practical constraints aside, I am older and Mum’s vulnerability feels like my vulnerability. It is very personal and I am less good at handling it.’ (Picture posed by model)
And none of this is helped when I am impatient and unsympathetic.
Of course, the gradual decline and death of our parents is an inevitable part of life. But knowing this doesn’t make their increased dependency – and the prospect of eventually losing them – any easier to handle. NHS guidelines talk about the guilt and anger felt when someone close to you dies, but much less is said about how both emotions can manifest long before that. And these days I spend much of the time feeling angry then guilty.
But, according to ‘death doula’ Anna Lyons, recognising the difficulties implicit in these emotions – rather than simply trying to plough on – can be helpful.
Anna, who is employed further down the line to help families both practically and emotionally through the final stages of a loved-one’s life, says: ‘Anticipatory grief is basically the brain’s way of getting used to the idea of somebody not being there any more.
‘People will imagine the eulogy, what their person looks like dead, the whole funeral. We conjure up what our lives will look like after that person has died.’
Of course no one likes to talk about these things, but talk we should, says Anna.
Let me be clear, Mum has no intention of dying any time soon (hell no!) but even the idea gives me the jitters. Ditto her increased frailty.
Anna adds: ‘Because we don’t talk about death, people think there’s something wrong with them when they’re grieving. They think that they must be behaving abnormally, or have some kind of disorder, especially if they feel angry towards the person who is unwell.’
But why anger? Why do I revert to petulant adolescent behaviour when I should be sympathetic and patient?
‘Grief equates to loss,’ says Anna. ‘No matter how old we get, we’ll always be a child to our parents. That dynamic is always there. You’re cross because it feels like she’s leaving you when she should be there to look after you, like she always did.’
Admitting all this is particularly shameful, given that I’ve spent the past decade writing books about some of the oldest women in Britain. With numerous nonagenarian and centenarian friends, I’ve witnessed the difficulties of their daily lives up close. It is never easy.
I know there is no avoiding the final furlong, with its numerous compromises and challenges, but therein lies a part of the problem.
I belong to the so-called sandwich generation who postponed having children and pursued a career. I have two daughters, one is four, the other 14, and a vulnerable mother who lives 500 miles away. Demographers refer to this mid-life phenomenon as the ‘rush hour’ – when the pressures of work commitments and mortgage repayments combine with young children and ageing parents in a perfect storm. My Mum is just one more person for me to feel guilty about.
Tessa added: ‘I belong to the so-called sandwich generation who postponed having children and pursued a career. I have two daughters, one is four, the other 14, and a vulnerable mother who lives 500 miles away.’ (Picture posed by model)
We all got together over Christmas and she conceded: ‘I know you find me annoying, darling, because I am not as much help as I used to be.’
I adore my eccentric, wonderful mother but I struggle with my lack of compassion and time, which compounds the guilt. And when she doesn’t answer the phone I spiral into a panic that she has fallen down the stairs.
Mum cared beautifully for her own mother, who lived to 91, but back then expectations were different and her children – my two brothers and me – were adults. The brutal truth is I am not able to give Mum the equivalent care and attention she gave her mother. I am still dressing my daughter in the mornings, and the prospect of having to do the same for Mum overwhelms me.
When my father died I was in my early 30s, child-free and less bound by work. I was by Dad’s side for much of his illness. But things are less simple now. Practical constraints aside, I am older and Mum’s vulnerability feels like my vulnerability. It is very personal and I am less good at handling it.
Like so many of her generation, Mum is a realist. She encouraged me to take life by the horns and, on good days, she doesn’t expect me to compromise my work or family, but somewhere a compromise is needed.
According to Prof Gordon, the journey into old age is not linear. Broaching difficult s ubjects, such as relocation, finances and care plans, can trigger different results at different times. The key is starting the conversation in the first place. So together we scroll down Age UK’s website to discover that Mum is bang on trend – at her age a life- limiting health condition or disability is the norm in nearly half of 80-plus-year-olds.
There is something reassuring in that – Mum feels less of a failure. She is, inevitably, physically deteriorating, and together we have to find solutions.
As psychotherapist Rose Persson explains: ‘Those who are the most successful at getting old are not afraid of dependency.’
And in the not too distant future, fundamental change is needed.
Mum’s community hub in her village is far away from all three of her children. I realise part of my anxiety about her decline is the idea of letting go of our childhood haven, Rannoch, if she moves near to one of us. As long as she is in the Highlands I can pretend our home, with Mum in it, will always be there. But nothing lasts for ever.
Rather than lean into her advancing years and appreciating her abundant wisdom and love, I have felt frustrated by her ageing process and tried to brush it off like an inconvenience – hoping, praying, that things can go on as before. They can’t.
And perhaps understanding that is the first step to improving our relationship. We are going to slowly move towards a more realistic, manageable future.
Mum is adamant: ‘There is no way I can live in London.’ And so far she’s refused my suggestion of getting someone in to help occasionally. As Prof Gordon says: ‘The process is never linear.’ But he recommends planning starts early while your parent has control. For Mum and me, 2023 is going to be about more contact and frank planning for the future.
As for my grief, Anna Lyons suggests it is part of this journey. In these situations, she says: ‘We go through every feeling – angry, sad, bewildered and back again.
‘We might never come to terms with, accept or “be OK” with illness and old age. But hopefully we can acknowledge what’s happening and the way we’re feeling.
‘And it’s important to talk about it more, because grief, and all the messy emotions it throws up, are normal.’
- The British Geriatrics Society works to improve healthcare for older people. Follow them on Twitter @GeriSoc. Tessa draws on the testimonies of several of her older friends, including her mother, in her latest book: Elizabeth And Philip, The Story Of Young Love, Marriage And Monarchy, published by Headline Press.