nsung heroines of family life

Triple chance: Claire Warburton with her mum Carol Eaton and daughter Livia
Triple chance: Claire Warburton with her mum Carol Eaton and daughter Livia
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Carers out of duty and love, their selflessness is saving the Government a fortune in care costs.

Sandwich Generation women quietly caring for both children and ailing elderly parents, sometimes even grandchildren too, and all the while holding down their jobs to keep their families functioning. It’s estimated one in eight adults have elderly parents or in-laws who need assistance and that grown-up children spend more than eight hours a week visiting and running errands for them. A fifth are even more dedicated, spending more than 16 hours a week looking after their parents.

The hours tot up to the equivalent of one or even two full-time working weeks per month.

If the care they provide for free was chargeable, it would total £21 billion. The sum practically doubles if you add on the hours older women spend being unpaid childminders for their grandchildren.

Throughout South Yorkshire, there will be thousands of Sandwich Women quietly and selflessly wearing themselves out for the sake of their families. We highlight the stories of two...

While many single working mothers count on their own mums to help out, divorcee Claire Warburton has no one to help take the strain. It is she who is currently her mother Carol Eaton’s right-hand woman.

Carol developed multiple sclerosis when Claire was just nine and her sister Gail was 13. A few years later their father died, leaving the girls as their mother’s carers.

Claire, now 39, has a 14-year- old son and “a whirlwind of a five year old daughter”. She works part-time as chief executive for Project Buzz at Devonshire Green, a community charity that supports vulnerable children and families. She is involved in several projects supporting victims of domestic abuse.

“My week consists of running back and forth to take the kids to school, dash to work, on to a meeting and seeing to mum’s needs as often as I can,” she says.

“I feel constantly sandwiched between so many different people who need different things from me. Some of that is of my own making; I’m passionate about helping so I volunteer with groups that support women suffering domestic abuse. I think I was born to care!

“But some of it is down to the circumstances I have found myself in. When a marriage breaks up, life becomes a lot harder for working parents. And mum needs more and more help.

“Some days I don’t know how I’m going to get through it all. On other days, easier days, I worry I am not doing enough,” she says. “I take mum to medical appointments and on weekly shopping trips and see her when I can, but it feels like I’m always telling her I can’t stay, I’ve got to dash off to something or other.

“There’s guilt all round. I’m constantly wondering if there is more I could fit in. And mum would love to be able to help me, but it’s impossible. She lives in a specially equipped bungalow in Oughtibridge and hasn’t been able to get to my house for 14 years. She’s constantly telling me she feels like a burden and that I have enough on my plate.

“I don’t want her to feel like that; I want to help her and spend time with her. I feel just a guilty as her; I’m always beating myself up about not spending more time with her and the kids. Sometimes I feel torn in two.”

Te Malin Bridge mum doesn’t feel at all exceptional:“I think there are millions of women across the country in my shoes. Doing it all is a way of life.

“It has been the same for generations, only today’s sandwich women also have jobs to contend with and are often single parents too. Would I change it?

“Briefly, I long for time to myself but then find myself wishing the kids were home as it’s too quiet.”

Lynda puts relatives first when it comes to care

Mum of three Lynda Ray changed careers and even gave up her home for the sake of her elderly mother. Her devotion started even before she was married. She and her fiance Stuart did their courting around the social life of her mum Nellie Fieldsend after the death of Lynda’s dad.

And when they married, the young couple bought a house only five minutes from Nellie and ten minutes from Stuart’s parents, surely a sign of their devotion.

Says Lynda, of Darnall: “My mum taught me to be caring and think of others. She had looked after her own parents when I was a girl and was there for me when I went back to work full time when my children were small.”

It was after Nellie had a double knee replacement operation in 1994 that roles reversed.

“Her knees never got better so I took her everywhere she needed to go, all the while working full time and studying in the evenings for a degree at Sheffield Hallam University,” says Lynda.

After graduating she became a childcare and education teacher at a Derbyshire college - her dream job. But then family duty called. Her father-in-law died and her mother-in-law had a bad fall.

“I found myself working full time in Derbyshire, looking after my family and dashing from mother-in-law to mum,” she says.

There was nothing for it but to get a job nearer and with better hours. She took a more flexible role with Sheffield Out of School Network, a job she loves and holds full-time to this day.

“Through all of this, my three daughters Tracy, Caroline and Nicola, were travelling through the life stresses of O-levels and A-levels, going to university, falling in love and getting married,” she says.

The extent of her selflessness knew no bounds, though. When it became apparent her mum needed her at night, Lynda ended up moving in.

“Mum wanted to stay in her own home and I promised her I would do every possible thing to help her,” she shrugs.

“For nine months my husband would go home from work, have his tea and then come to visit me at mum’s house. He would help me get her comfortable in bed, then go back home,” she reveals.

When Nellie’s needs increased, the couple decided to move in full-time and rented their own home out to daughter Caroline and her husband Nick, an arrangement that still stands.

Says Lynda, 57: “At weekends family would visit. I would give my oldest grandchildren simple tasks to do to support their great-nanny’s care. We all just pulled together and got on with it.

“The hardest of all this was organising support from Social Services. I had endless meetings. I would work out a care plan with one manager then she would leave or mum’s needs would change very slightly and it all would have to start again. I was having similar meetings at the care home my mum-in-law had moved into,” she says, echoing a situation thousands of people with elderly and infirm parents find themselves in.

Eventually her mum ended up with a bed in her front room. “It made it easier for the carers, but not for us. I bought a baby monitor so I could hear her when she needed me. As her need increased, I would often sleep on the floor and in chairs,” she reflects. “My sleep was almost non-existent. All through this I was working full-time and supporting my daughters by helping out with the grandchildren.

“I tried my best to be there for everyone. The most stressful time in my life was when my youngest daughter Nicola had her baby prematurely. Alfie was born at 29 weeks at 3lb. 3oz.

“I had my mum in the Northern General Hospital, Nicola and Alfie in the Jessop’s and I had a breast cancer scare and was going to and fro from the Hallamshire Hospital.”

One May morning in 2010, Lynda’s mother had a stroke.

“At 94 years old she passed away peacefully in my arms with all the family around her bed,” says Lynda softly. “She opened her eyes and very clearly said, “God bless”.

“Seven days later I had a phone call from my mum-in-law’s care home. She had died in her sleep aged 95. I had seen her three days earlier but I felt I had let her down. I should have been with her, holding her like I had held my mum. It is my biggest regret.

“Now I have more time to spend with my ever-growing family I enjoy my nanny days and Stuart and I have time to do things together again.

“My poor husband always felt at the back of the queue but in reality it was my strong love and partnership with him that was keeping me going. I think myself very blessed that we are doing life together.”