Have the Men Had Enough? by Margaret Forster

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Have the Men Had Enough? by Margaret Forster

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A frightening study of the effects of senile dementia on the family of the sufferer, this book will make you think about how you will look after your parents - or your children will look after you.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: March 2004
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0099455641

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Grandma has always been a tough lady. Widowed early in life she brought up three children with little help. She's always been the one who did the caring, but now she's increasingly unable to look after herself and the family she brought up must look after her.

This is a very good book but I didn't like it. It's more than a decade since I struggled with two parents whose contact with reality dwindled with each passing day but reading this book made me realise that the scars of that time have not healed and probably never will. I knew that I would have problems as I read the first lines:

"Have the men had enough? Never mind the men. Which men? Hurry up, the potatoes will be cold. I'd love a potato. Then take one, Grandma. Have the men had enough?"

All, Grandma's conversations are like this - circular and disconnected. We hear them through the voices of Hannah and Jenny, the daughter and wife of Grandma's son, Charlie. Charlie's done quite well for himself and it's his money which pays the rent of Grandma's flat and for the helpers who look after her. Her other son, Stuart, is a policeman and has taken the attitude that his mother should be in a home and he will have nothing to do with her care. The light of Grandma's life though is her daughter, Bridget. She's forty-three years old, unmarried and a nurse. Fiercely independent herself, she's determined that her mother will not go into a home.

As a study in senile dementia it must be near-perfect. When the book opens Grandma is reasonably mobile, talks, if not always to any great point and there are occasions when she seems to make contact with those around her beyond knowing their names. There is, of course, the odd accident, the occasional fall, but generally it's possible for her to walk from Charlie's house back to her flat so long as she's accompanied. She's a large, shambolic lady, prone to reciting poetry to the unwary and incapable of realising that she frightens the small children she so loves. It's not long though before the "odd accident" becomes incontinence and mobility becomes immobility.

It's a study of guilt. The burden of keeping Grandma in her flat falls financially on Charlie, but physically on Bridget, Jenny and Hannah. They each have their physical and emotional limits, but caring for Grandma will ultimately take more than each of them has to give. If she has little contact with reality in her own home she will have less if she is moved and so she will get worse. They can only save themselves at Grandma's expense.

Care generally falls on women. It's expected of them, even now. Hannah has an elder brother, Adrian. He loves Grandma and he wants her to stay in her own home or even to move into the family home, but all he's expected to do is provide the occasional lift to the chiropodist. Hannah, on the other hand, spends night in her grandmother's flat as the sole carer, being woken several times a night to be told that it's time to go to work, or they should go to the market as the cauliflowers are good. She points out to her father the idiocy of his not allowing her to stay overnight on her own in the family home, but being desperate enough to allow her to have the overnight responsibility of a woman with senile dementia.

The book's also a study of the stress placed on carers. What happens when one of them is ill, or taking a much-needed break? What happens when the people you pay to undertake the care prove unreliable or unable to cope? How do the carers cope when they see Grandma taken into care?

Characterisation is very good. I warmed to Grandma, although we never know her first name. She's variously 'Grandma', 'mother' or 'Mrs McKay'. She's not just the empty shell of senility. There's a history there, a real personality. I wondered with Grandma, as I did with my own parents, the extent to which they realised their plight. Is the person suffering the dementia 'happy in their own way'? They may be secure, well looked after, but are they aware of it? Bridget is centred on her mother and whilst well-characterised, I was unable to warm to her. Far more interesting to me are Jenny and Hannah, the narrators. Hannah's an intelligent seventeen, thoughtful and honest, particularly about her own actions and reactions. Jenny's only related to Grandma by marriage and can see both sides the emotional arguments. As in all Margaret Forster books the women are more vivid than the men and this book is no exception. Stuart is barely in the story and I would have liked to know more about Charlie.

There can only be one ending to this type of story but it was still a real page-turner. With all dementia it's not a steady progression. There are plateaux and periods when there seems to be stability followed by decline at an alarming rate. Forster captures this perfectly as well as the feeling that the carers are always trailing behind the events, never quite knowing what to expect next, never prepared for what actually happens. It's not Grandma's fault, but it's not theirs either.

If you have had a difficult time caring for an elderly relative this book will bring the memories flooding back and you may - or may not - wish to avoid it. If you want to think about how you might have to look after your parents or your children might have to care for you then it should be required reading.

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Buy Have the Men Had Enough? by Margaret Forster at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Have the Men Had Enough? by Margaret Forster at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Have the Men Had Enough? by Margaret Forster at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Have the Men Had Enough? by Margaret Forster at Amazon.com.


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