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Mum cared for us, then faded away

Barry Toberman's mother died recently, after a life spent caring for her family. But her later years were blighted by dementia

    Audrey Toberman with granddaughter Annalise
    Audrey Toberman with granddaughter Annalise

    There were no tears when my mum Audrey died, just a guilty relief.

    She was 90, “a good age” as people unaware of the full circumstances feel duty bound to say when offering condolences. But her latter years were blighted by dementia.

    The downward spiral will be sadly familiar to many sons, daughters and grandchildren. The first evidence of something seriously amiss was a visit to her sheltered accommodation block in North London, where she came to the front entrance and eyed my wife and me suspiciously before inquiring: “Do I know you?”

    As her mental state declined, the reflex response to things forgotten or no longer comprehensible was expressed in the catch-all phrase: “Everything is a bit of a blur.” If anything, she became nicer as her health deteriorated. Wherever she was in care, staff and fellow residents remarked on her pleasant nature and the fact that she was never any bother.

    She still scrubbed up well and, with hair done and nails painted, cut an elegant if somewhat confused figure at family gatherings.

    But seeing her frail and bedridden with barely a flicker of recognition in her final months was pitiful. There was no discernible quality of life and her death seemed merciful. Since her passing, so many people have relayed similar feelings about loved ones who died in such circumstances.

    I naturally prefer to dwell on the happy memories from childhood and also how Mum was a proud and loving grandma to our daughter Annalise, painstakingly knitting waistcoats for favourite toy animals, taking her to London attractions and counting down the days to stay-overs.

    My parents were pioneers of the migration from the East End to Redbridge and set up home in what became the Gants Hill Jewish heartland.

    By the standards of the age, they married relatively late and given their traditional outlook and the radically changing social landscape of the 1960s and 70s, I sometimes felt they were more like two generations removed from me.

    They endured the heartbreak of a still-born daughter before I arrived (Mum never mentioned it; Dad only told me when I was in my 20s).

    Mum hailed from a comparatively well-to-do background and in the current era would probably have forged a successful career in the financial world. In the event, she worked as a part-time bookkeeper, but only after my brother and I were well into our teens as she didn’t want us to come back to an empty house.

    Her financial nous helped keep things afloat as Dad’s tailoring business struggled and she was de facto head of the house, albeit always deferring to him in our presence.

    As a couple they were utterly devoted and their rare arguments tended to be over directions when we were in the car. But Dad only learned to drive in middle age and there was hardly much travelling.

    Though I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, luxuries were scarce and my first family holiday beyond kosher hotels in Bournemouth and other South Coast resorts was a trip to Ostend when I was 16.

    They didn’t share my interests, paternal relatives from Forest Gate fostering my love of football and uncles on the maternal side introducing me to cricket.

    Mum did, to her credit, take me to my first West Ham game and would go to the bookies to place (small) bets on my behalf during my teenage fascination with horse racing.

    She could just about live with the music of the Beatles and the Kinks emanating loudly from tinny speakers in my room but her patience snapped when punk came along and the sounds were of the Sex Pistols and the Clash.

    Observance was compromise mainstream Orthodox, with Friday night sacred but Saturday somehow open to negotiation (Dad worked; I went to football after shul). A brief football ban was imposed after I skipped synagogue to ensure early arrival at Upton Park (funny the things you remember).

    However, she was made up when, during a brief religious phase, I conducted services at my cheder and ditto for working for the JC and on my marriage to Sue.

    My indifference to her haimshe cuisine must have been upsetting Dad raved about her cooking, probably sincerely as he was a straightforward soul who didn’t do deceit. But she indulged me by preparing Spanish omelettes as an alternative and could rustle up a mean cheesecake, and a cherry-topped pie with a custard filling I’ve never experienced the like of since.

    She acceded to Dad’s wish to retire to the coast. They bought a flat on one of the top floors of a Southend tower block which afforded a sumptuous sea view. Ironically, it was Dad who could not hack life there, feeling a sense of isolation, and missing family, and they moved back to the Essex/East London borders.

    But, in another all too familiar story, she became a long-term carer as my father’s illness (Parkinson’s) took hold. She supported his desire to remain at home as his condition worsened, despite the emotional and physical toll it placed on her over a period of years. They even managed to take holidays.

    She was in her mid-70s when he died. She did enjoy good times in subsequent years. But having spent virtually every day in dad’s company for close on half a century, there was an unmistakable void.

    To her, family commitments automatically came before anything else a source of continual disagreement.

    The question she asked “do I know you?” that alerted us to her dementia, was one I’d been asking all my life. Mum probably did understand me but pretended not to comprehend the elements of attitude and lifestyle which did not sit with her more insular world view.

    Even in severe discomfort, Dad wanted to live on for every possible day. I know Mum would not have wished her children to see her as she was in her last months. Longevity now often comes at a terrible price.

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