Artist Claire McCarthy hoped to keep her mum out of a care home, but with her own wellbeing under threat, she finally realised the true meaning of caring

In 2008, three years after my dad died, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. There were a few early signs, like mum falling asleep and then waking up to ask, ‘Where’s your dad?’ Or when she did a reading at church and froze midway, seemingly unaware what to do next. She would get embarrassed by these occasional blips, so my sister finally convinced her to be medically assessed.

Claire Mccarthy

Later that same year, my mum contracted an infection, suffered several seizures and was taken into intensive care at a Liverpool hospital. They scanned her brain and confirmed that she had entered the first stages of Alzheimer’s. None of us knew what to expect. Typically, mum didn’t show any fear to any of her seven sons and two daughters (me being the youngest). But I do remember her looking at herself in the mirror and asking, ‘When did I get old? Where did all these wrinkles come from?’

It was heartbreaking. I would stay over at her place most weekends while my sister maintained contact with the doctor, and one of my brothers, Joseph, moved back in to live with her. Mum and I took a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, in 2009, and it made a huge impact on her health, spirit and wellbeing. Her cognitive functions seemed to improve, but to me something else had happened. The Alzheimer’s was progressing to the moderate stage.

After 2012, most of my time was taken up with caring for mum because Joseph was fatigued. I constantly worried about her, especially when her memory took a sudden downturn.

As an artist, I was relying on a few painting commissions and sales, and I worked part-time as a personal caring assistant for a friend with a disability, but I couldn’t focus all my time on my art career because as far as I was concerned, my mum deserved all the help she needed. Still, I was pleased with myself when I won a place at London’s Mall Galleries’ Threadneedle Prize 2012. The painting exhibited was called Council House Window and Kitchen Sink in The Morning. It later sold to a private collector. But the love for my mum took over my feelings of success, and the thought of her going into a home made me feel broken inside. So all my focus went on her.

This is a photo of Amy in a white outfit, poised elegantly

Council house, window and kitchen sink in the morning by Claire McCarthy

Some family members insisted we should put mum into care; others disagreed. Challenges within the siblings began. My brother Joseph finally moved out in order to rebuild his life.

Most of my other brothers lived in various parts of the UK or halfway across the world, and all had families and full-time jobs. Being single, and with no children, my life soon merged into mum’s life.

I lived out of a suitcase, spending weekdays living with at her home and weekends back at my flat. It was the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life. I got closer to mum and I became extremely protective of her, but I wasn’t very pleasant to my siblings. There were still huge disagreements among us, and we were all hurting, but many of them were so busy with their lives, jobs and families that it made me feel resentful.

I was her timekeeper, her chef, her cleaner, her secretary, and her chaperone. I was going to care for mum until the very end

Mum was turning to me for assistance, to recall her words, to help finish off what she wanted to say to visitors. I had to regularly remind her of what was happening. I was her timekeeper, her chef, her cleaner, her dresser, her secretary, and her chaperone. I had it in my mind that I was going to care for mum until the very end.

Mum had many sleepless nights, waking up in a state of panic and looking for her baby. It was heart- wrenching. I had to say, ‘Hey mum, I’m your baby and I’ve grown up. It’s okay.’ I would go back to my room, lie on my bed, and cry silently. It was emotionally exhausting and I felt at my weakest inside ‘the vacuum’.

As mum’s Alzheimer’s progressed, my relationships with my family worsened. My life revolved around her only. I desperately wanted to preserve her dignity and keep her safe in familiar surroundings. And I wanted her to know how much she was loved. But by July 2015, I had almost severed relations with one of my brothers and his wife, because the pressure was so immense and ‘the vacuum’ felt like it was going to kill me.

It was at this point I was torn in two, as the family became worried not just for mum, but for me too. I was becoming more confused, more forgetful, and I was constantly falling ill with flu and stomach bugs. A painful decision was upon me: should mum go into care? It’s the worst decision my family and I have ever had to make. Our devoted mum – that pillar of strength and love who gave up her life to create this amazing family – was going into a care home.

Mum had many sleepless nights, waking up in a state of panic and looking for her baby. It was heart-wrenching. I had to say, 'Hey mum, I'm your baby and I've grown up. It's okay.'

I thought, ‘Have we abandoned her?’

We had to go through a few processes with Social Services and we were given a list of care homes where they could take care of mum properly. I felt like a fraud, asking her if she liked this place or that. We eventually found a home. It seemed secure, friendly, and was only a stone’s throw away from where my sister lives.

Once my mum moved in, I was advised not to see her for a couple of weeks so that I could step out from being her carer. To me, I felt like I had given up on her. I had failed her. And yet I knew I needed to make the break. Now, we all maintain visiting mum, taking her out to the park, to Penny Lane, to see her friends, or to church on Sundays. It’s slowly dawning on me that everything’s okay, and despite her illness, mum’s okay.

After 18 months living in this lovely care home, she has made new friends. The carers love her and I thank them so much for their good work. Within the family, peace is among us and we all realise that it’s inevitable and very common for relationships to come under fire when a loved one needs care, especially a parent who binds everyone together.

I visit mum regularly. I wash her hair and give her loads of hugs. I think my mother is the most hugged person in the world. Being a carer is a tough job – and very under-appreciated in society. I wish I could have been in better circumstances to continue caring for mum. I have undying admiration for those who manage to care for their loved ones until the end because it’s the most unselfish thing to do. Often I have to give myself good reasons as to why I am no longer a carer for mum.

This is a painting by Claire McCarthy

Stormy day on the Mersey by Claire McCarthy

As for my art, with help from my local employment services, I decided to launch a plein air painting business on the River Mersey, to capture the ferries and the river life on canvas in natural light. I raised sponsorship from various Liverpool partnerships, and I am now looking for one more sponsor to pay for my artwork framing.

To date, I have painted over a hundred watercolours and 20 large canvases. Plein air painting is challenging but it helps improve my art technique and it seems to engage with many people. It’s been an enjoyable release. I now have something great to talk about when I visit my mum.

To view Claire’s paintings, visit:
www.clairemccarthy.co.uk

Fe Robinson, a psychotherapist, EMDR therapist and clinical supervisor, writes:
“Claire’s story is a moving account of the importance of carers finding a balance and making space for self-care while caring for others. Long-term illness takes a toll on everyone, it is important to recognise the impact on you and take action early; when your cup is full you can flow energy out to others.”