Kate Mosse: I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to care
Bestselling novelist Kate Mosse is visibly delighted that her 90-year-old mother-in-law, Granny Rosie, is helping her with the publicity for her latest book and is loving the photoshoots they are doing together.
“She’s really enjoying all of this,” Mosse says, chuckling at the publicity schedule. “With every interview, there’s a picture of me with Granny Rosie. We’ve done several photoshoots – she’s having a ball.”
Mosse, who is known for her epic historical and Gothic adventure sagas including the Labyrinth trilogy set in Carcassonne and The Burning Chambers series, has taken a non-fiction detour to write An Extra Pair Of Hands, her personal reflection on how she found herself a carer to her mother-in-law and her own parents.
While it’s clear she has experienced great joy caring for her older relatives, Mosse also brings into play the difficulties faced by unpaid carers, the frustration, guilt and grief, the distance problems, dilemmas of fitting caring in with work commitments, and the longing to fix things which maybe can’t be fixed.
“There are 8.8 million of us, so many people who have these experiences. It reinforced my reason for doing the book – making caring visible,” she states.
For many years, Mosse, 59, has had three generations under one roof, caring for both her parents (now deceased) and her mother-in-law, who is clearly loving life. “I love her to bits,” says the author.
“It’s a wonderful thing to be in a position to have the space for everybody to be together. That is much easier if you love each other and you all get on, and because my husband and I met at school and have known each other’s families since we were 15, that makes an enormous difference.
“Also, very significantly, none of the people for whom I’ve been involved in caring have had Alzheimer’s or dementia, which is a completely different situation for people.”
Her mother-in-law, Rosemary Turner, known as Granny Rosie, was the first to move in with the author, her husband Greg and their two young daughters when they left London for Sussex in 1998. At the time Granny Rosie was living in a caravan in Emsworth. She’d had three husbands, who didn’t suit.
A decade later, Mosse’s parents Richard and Barbara moved in as well, although by then Mosse and her clan were living in a different house in Chichester which ironically had once been a care home.
Indeed, the book is a tribute to those three older protagonists in her life, their wisdom, experiences and quirks, their sprightly get-up-and-go positive attitudes, their grit when times were tough.
“I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to care. My job makes it possible, my husband’s also a writer, and all these things make a difference to the challenges. Many people have to give up their jobs to be a carer because they don’t have any other family to support them.
“Many of my girlfriends – because in the end the majority of caring does fall on women – are spending half of every weekend driving across the country, they are always worried every time the phone goes that the care home or a neighbour is ringing to tell them there’s a problem.”
Perhaps the reason that her own story is so moving is the depth of love within it, the idyllic childhood she had in Fishbourne, Sussex, with her parents and two sisters, and the slow path towards a role reversal.
“It’s an odd role reversal – one that creeps up on you – when you realise that you are now caring for those who once cared for you,” she reflects.
Her father, a retired solicitor, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in his mid-70s and several long spells in hospital left him weak, enabling the Parkinson’s to get a firmer grip.
When he died aged 86 at home in 2011 with his family around him, as he would have wanted, it wasn’t a shock, but prompted Mosse to focus on her mother, keeping a watching brief on how she would cope without the man she had been married to for nearly 60 years.
“My father knew he was dying and was ready. He had a very strong Christian faith. He didn’t want to leave my ma but otherwise he was ready for the next adventure. His conversations were about hope and seeing his mother.”
Three years later her mother, who suffered from COPD, died suddenly when, after suffering breathing difficulties and being taken to hospital, she just slipped away. It was a shock to the whole family.
“We didn’t expect to suddenly lose her and even the ambulance drivers who came to see how she was doing were devastated.”
In the days that followed Mosse says there wasn’t a day when she didn’t cry, feeling robbed of those last conversations, the statements of love and gratitude, furious at herself for working in London the previous week when she could have been at her mother’s side.
“I was able to grieve completely when my mother died in a way that I didn’t when my father died, because she was still here when he died and she mattered.”
The shock of losing her mother led to her being unable to write, she recalls.
“I couldn’t focus. It was such a shock. Everything was suspended. I couldn’t read and I couldn’t write. I didn’t write for six months.
“Everything about the world which had given me pleasure just went. That was when I realised that I hadn’t grieved quite in that way for my dad.”
Reliving the loss of her parents for the book was hard, she agrees.
“It was surprisingly hard to revisit the loss of my dad and my mum, not because I don’t miss them every day, because I do. I felt like the grief had all been processed, and writing about it brought a lot of that back.
“On the other hand, it was quite cathartic to look back on the times I existed in a complete brain fog. I could think, yes, time does its work and you move on, and to be able to see all the joyous things was good.”
Being a carer, whether you live with the people you are caring for or not, is about every single day, she says.
“It’s about routine, the endless repetition of things, of always having someone else’s needs at the forefront of your mind. The quotidian tasks that repeat and repeat: conversations, medication, meals, laundry, personal hygiene. It’s about the embracing of unpredictability and sudden change.”
And she observes that “there is a poignancy in the reality that someone who is visibly ageing and already fragile will only ever become less mobile, less able to manage. It’s a tough gig, often full of despair and sadness.”
The pandemic – and the inability of people who weren’t able to see their loved ones – just heightened her resolve to write about the dilemmas faced by our unpaid carers in this country.
“Many people I know who have older relatives with dementia have seen a terrible decline because of the lack of human contact and the near-impossibility of explaining what’s happening.”
She herself feels privileged to have had the joy of caring for her relatives – and is still caring for Granny Rosie, who may be more fragile in body, but certainly not in mind.
During the first lockdown, she got her family to wheel out her electric piano, plugs, wires, extension lead et al, into the street during the NHS clap for carers, and proceeded to play a World War Two playlist including Pack Up Your Troubles and We’ll Meet Again.
Mosse’s daughter posted it on social media and Granny Rosie went viral, sparking a (virtual) appearance on This Morning with Phil and Holly, playing live on the show.
“Granny Rosie is still knitting at the age of 90 for the children’s hospice shop and doing a great deal for other people,” Mosse says proudly.
She believes the language around ageing needs to change.
“We should be celebrating that we are living longer and healthier and older lives. This is a brilliant consequence of our wonderful NHS.
“It’s always talked about as a problem that we have an older population, rather than ‘this is incredible!’ Also, there’s the idea that a person’s age is what matters. But what matters is who somebody is and what they contribute and do in the world.”
Granny Rosie is testament to that.
An Extra Pair Of Hands by Kate Mosse is published on June 3 by Wellcome Collection and Profile Books priced £12.99.