Mum brought me into world —now she needs me

WE’VE publicised many of Sam Mellish’s powerful pictures over the past couple of years – snowboarders doing twists, teenagers on charitable expeditions to India for Raleigh International, and a celebration of Britain’s traditional roadside cafes – but his latest project cuts right into our living-rooms. Commissioned by Age UK, the photographs give an insight into the reality of isolated older people caring for loved ones.

Age UK wanted to create a photographic exhibition to make them visible to the MPs making decisions about the care system; to local authorities contemplating taking away what little support is available; and to the public who might be able to help a neighbour in need.

Invisible but Invaluable, as it’s known, is supported by “Oxo mum” actress Lynda Bellingham, who has contributed a photograph of her late mother to the exhibition.

“Although many older carers find caring rewarding and see it as an expression of their love for the person they care for, they also tell us that they feel invisible and undervalued,” says the charity, the newish amalgam of Age Concern and Help the Aged. “Many are stressed and exhausted. They need financial, practical and emotional support.

“This exhibition makes older carers visible and tells their stories.” There are six case studies, scattered around the country in places such as Birmingham, Oxfordshire, Waltham Forest and Leeds. “It asks for everyone’s support, and especially that of local and national government, to make sure that they get the recognition they so richly deserve.”

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Lynda Bellingham says: “My mother, Ruth, had Alzheimer’s. My father, Donald, looked after her for several years.

“They were both in their seventies. He was a farmer but he had an accident and went from being a very fit to not so fit older man. He found it very difficult to cope. We tried to find some respite for her. Unfortunately, she went into one home where she fell and broke her hip, so she then became completely immobile. The whole situation then quickly degenerated.

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“Dementia care is such a different form of caring. You have to make the person feel secure. The paid carers did their best but they were practical people and would ask mum questions and that panicked her.

“The emotional strain on my father was immense. It’s not like seeing anything getting any better. My sister bore the brunt of the caring. I would go down for a week to give my sister a break and solely concentrate on my mother. A week is nothing but it made me conscious of how important respite is.

“When mum went in the home dad was heartbroken. Again I would go down for a week to be with him. We would go over old times. It was important for my father to have those memories and talk to somebody because you lose your sense of identity when you are a carer.

“I consider it an honour to represent the ‘invisible’. You recognise me, now recognise them.”

Sam, who lives in Ipswich and hails from Capel St Mary, landed the commission as a happy consequence of previous photographic work for Breast Cancer Campaign, found the subjects’ lives hard but their stories and devotion essentially heartwarming.

He has some knowledge, from his own family, about the kind of sacrifices people make to look after those they love.

“I can certainly relate it to what my mum did for her foster dad and what my dad has done for his mum. My nan has now actually gone into a home, but my dad had been looking after her a lot. She’d fall over in the night he would go to Manningtree to help her. My mum was always off to Southend regularly to look after the man who’d looked after her when she was young – and then there she was, doing the same for him when he was frail.”

Sam, who in 2008 was awarded an MA by the University of Westminster, found he had to use different techniques to much of his other photographic work.

“It was quite difficult in respect of you kind of entering their lives, which were often tough and the carers were usually very tired. But just us being there, and giving both the carer and the person they were looking after a bit of attention, it seemed really uplifting for them. We were only there for 45 minutes a lot of the time, but they seemed to warm to it really well, so that was fun.

“A lot of my other projects, essentially documentary, were done over a long period of time, and because of the nature of this one we didn’t have long. I’d think beforehand about what I wanted to do, how to create a shot, what the text said, and how we could relate the shot to that, but I obviously hadn’t been there before or met the people, and we had to be very respectful. Some people would have difficulty understanding what was going on, and you never really wanted to push the boundary. Other photoshoots, you can be a bit more pushy and a bit more ‘aggressive’. You had to be a bit patient with this – and it really did work, because people were really interested and keen to help.

“It was a privilege to work on the campaign and I really hope it persuades the Government to do a bit more for people.”

n The Invisible but Invaluable photographic exhibition runs until November 20 at The Gallery in the Crypt, St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London. Opening times are 10am until 5pm each day and entry is free.

MOHAMMED Baig, 64, and wife Ruby care for Mr Baig’s mother.

“I came from Pakistan in 1961. When my mother wanted to retire, I asked her to come from Pakistan and stay with me and the Home Office agreed. I am her only son. In our culture, sons are responsible for the parent.

“My mother is partly blind and can hardly walk. She needs 24-hour care. She once switched on the gas cooker and left it on. She can’t be left alone at all.

“In the last five years my mother has started to get dementia. Social services said they would put her into a nursing home, but I don’t want her to die somewhere else. She needs people who are close to her to talk to.

“My mother brought me into the world and comforted me. Now she needs me. That is how it is to my mind.”

CHRISTINE cares for mother Margaret.

“My dad had died. My mother had mobility problems and was getting more and more isolated and depressed. So I asked her if she wanted to come and live with me. She was 78. I thought, ‘It’s only for a few years.’ She’s 92 now!

“To start with, she just lived with me and I was still working. Then in 2001 she had to have her leg amputated. Suddenly she was in a wheelchair, which changed life dramatically. I tried to carry on working until 2004, when I just keeled over one day. It took a year to get my health back.

“After I stopped work our finances nosedived, so I used up all my savings. We went from having a good income to living on benefits. Going to the Jobcentre was totally humiliating.”

BRIAN, 70, looks after wife Madeleine.

“A lot of the help that my wife needs is with confidence-building and keeping a positive attitude. She can become very anxious and agitated. I keep an eye on her medication for epilepsy and osteoporosis. She has poor balance, a sensitivity to perfumes and food intolerances.

“It is very difficult for people to understand her problems – something visible like a broken leg gets immediate sympathy. Nothing is visible to indicate my wife’s problems.

“I have been trying to get some financial support from the local council. It has taken four months to arrange and has been very frustrating. I had a backlog of invoices. The council wanted me to open a separate account for payments, but my bank wouldn’t do it.”

SHEILA is 75. She cares for son Craig and for her mother and sister.

“Craig has Down’s syndrome. I am also carer for my mum, who is 98 and lives in a home. I take her food, wash her clothes, wash her hair and generally look after her. I also have a sister who lives in a dementia centre. I visit and sit with her and talk to her or take her for a walk.

“Craig is a full-time job. He is 37. I sort clothes out for him every day, put him in the bath, then he baths himself and I get him out again. I also wash his hair. He can’t be left alone in the house.

“Caring has got a lot harder as I’ve got older, possibly because I am also caring for my mum and sister now. I can’t cope as well as I used to.

“I would like to be able to phone someone if there’s an emergency, so that I can leave Craig with them while I deal with it. But it would have to be someone who had already got to know him.

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