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And Fred came too: the struggle to care for a grieving step-parent

This week’s storyteller is Barbara.

When Barbara’s mother passed away, Barbara was left to care for her mother’s second husband who stayed on in the granny flat. Despite Barbara’s best efforts, it was hard to make the relationship work.

My father died 33 years ago, and eventually Mummy met and married Fred, who was some years her senior. He was besotted with her and they led a happy and independent life for some years.

Because of his age I had always thought that Fred would be the first to go and that I would then spend “quality time” with Mummy when she was on her own. However, we can never plan these things and nature made its own decisions!

I lived closer to Mummy and Fred than my brother and sisters, so it made sense that I took on responsibility for my mother’s welfare as she grew older. I had no problem with that because we enjoyed a good relationship. I even planned that she would move into the granny annexe attached to our house at some point.

Meanwhile my husband Paul and I kept a gentle eye on the pair of them. We helped them buy and move into a retirement flat when they decided the family home was too much for them. We took them on regular trips out and on short holidays when they lost the confidence to go away à deux. But we stood back and let them get on with their life together in between times because I didn’t want to push them into life-changing decisions before they were ready.

In hindsight, I wish I had intervened sooner, but we could not have foreseen what was to come.

Mummy lost weight and was plainly not well, but endless tests could not find an answer. She struggled bravely on until the medics worked out that she had a “growth” in her heart. I was with her when she was told in stark terms “It’s not cancerous, but it is going to kill you if we don’t remove it, and remove it quickly.”

She was instinctive and strong in her response to get on with the necessary operation. Within days she had the op and was in intensive care in London.

Fred couldn’t cope at home alone, so he came to stay with Paul and me until Mummy was well. I took him up to London every day to visit her and tried my best to jolly him along. Sadly he was so immersed in his own distress and needs that he never once thought to ask if I was all right or offer me emotional support or sympathy.

As it happened, the tenants in our granny annexe decided to move out, leaving the way clear for us to renovate the place for Mummy and Fred. I furnished it with as many of their own treasured possessions as I could sensibly find space for: furniture, pictures and trinkets all carefully placed to make it feel like home. It was a tiny palace in waiting for the pair of them!

Fred moved in first and Mummy joined him a few months later. They were together again, though they needed huge amounts of support and I was now their full-time carer.

Mummy loved it, and I would often see her strolling gently round the garden trying to re-build some strength. She would appear in my kitchen doorway as I was preparing evening meals, her eyes sparking with glee that she could spend a few moments with me, though Fred was never far away, lovingly shadowing her every move.

However, the summer heat that year was too much for Mummy. She struggled to get adequate breath into her very weak lungs and, after a fall and brief spell back in hospital, she died in August, aged 83.

We were left with Fred – 91 years of age, heart-broken, and with no family of his own to look after him.

Supporting Fred became all-consuming, particularly for me as I was working at home at the time. My small business evaporated through lack of attention while I tended to Fred’s endless needs, and the saddest thing of all was that he never really appreciated how lucky he was. Nor could he see that not only had he lost his beloved wife but that I too was grieving for the loss of my mother.

The stress of the situation wore me to a frazzle. I began to realise I was overwhelmed by the sheer physical and emotional load I was carrying, even with Paul’s wonderful support.

Inevitably Fred was taken ill too, as a bad chest infection turned to pneumonia and he was hospitalised. I realised it was time for me to ask for help. When he was discharged he was taken to a small, local residential care home to convalesce. Shortly after, the decision was taken for him to stay there permanently. It was a nice home and he was well looked after.

Fred was angry with me, regardless of the ongoing care that I took of his welfare and financial security, until the day he died at the age of 95.

I had Power of Attorney and was Executor for both Mummy and Fred and, even though I was helped by their excellent solicitor and financial advisor, sorting out their affairs was a huge undertaking.

It is only now, three years on, that I realise we are finally through the stress and trauma. My life is my own again. Paul and I are enjoying a spell of quiet contentment which we hope will last a few years before we too become old and frail.

Inevitably, there are regrets and feelings of guilt. Could I have handled the situation differently or better?

Who knows, but I’m glad I was able to look after Mummy when she needed me most. Fred, of course, was not my dad, but I did all that I could for him too in the absence of any family of his own to help.

I must be content with that.

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