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Gardening, my mother and Alzheimer's - article in the Daily Mail

Today, the Daily Mail in London published an article I have written about how gardening helped me cope with my mother's painful battle with Alzheimer's. It was incredibly difficult to write as I'd buried so many of the most disturbing memories. But it was also cathartic and helped bring back so many happy memories as well. It confirmed more than ever before just how much of a link plants and gardens were between me and my mother and that is a link that can never be broken. I hope others find this helpful and comforting.

How gardening sustained one woman as she watched her mother's decline to Alzheimer's

By Catherine Horwood


Even today, I can’t dead-head a rose or plant a bulb without thinking of my mother.

Eight years after her death, these routine jobs in the garden still have the power to bring her back to me with pin-sharp clarity.

Because for virtually the whole of my adult life, my mother and I shared a passionate love of anything horticultural.

A passion shared: Catherine Horwood developed a lifelong love for 
gardening thanks to her mother

A passion shared: Catherine Horwood developed a lifelong love of gardening thanks to her mother

Every phone call began with us comparing notes on our plants; weekends were happily spent together visiting nurseries or other people’s gardens.

It was a bond I thought we’d always share — but that changed when I was enjoying the last day of a wonderful holiday in Spain.

It was particularly special holiday because my three daughters had joined my husband and I on our two-week trip, which was unusual, as since they’d grown up they’d stopped coming away with us.

On the last evening, we partied until dawn as our favourite local restaurant — the one we’d been going to since the girls were tiny — celebrated its 25th anniversary.

The next day my eldest daughter, who was then 26, was the first to leave to fly back to Britain, and once home immediately got on the phone to tell her beloved grandmother (my mother) about the holiday.

Granny was looking forward to hearing all our stories.

So when, on the way to Barcelona airport, I got a call, I expected reassurance that all was well, not that our lives were about to be lurched forward into blackness.

‘There’s something wrong with Granny — something very, very wrong,’ my daughter explained in distress.

My heart sank but I was not entirely surprised.

This daughter lived away from London and couldn’t visit her grandmother very often, so she had been shielded from the gradual mental deterioration I had been witnessing.

The three girls hadn’t seen her tears of frustration when she found she could no longer read (something she had loved ever since I can remember) because by the time she’d finished a paragraph she couldn’t remember what the first sentence was about.

Nor had they seen her struggling to button up a cardigan — this once-elegant woman who had taught me so many years ago just the right way to wear a silk scarf.

But this day, when my daughter called me, was in a different league. My father had told her what had happened.

Earlier that day, it seemed, my mother had got out of the chair she now rarely left and made for the front door. Once in the street, she’d stood outside the house, motionless, frozen to the spot, until a concerned neighbour approached her.

‘There’s a man in the house,’ she hissed angrily. ‘He wants to kill me. I can’t go back in there.’

I sat holding her small fragile hands, fighting back the tears. I could see in her eyes that something had switched off inside her brain


There was indeed a man in the house: my father. The most patient man in the world and her companion of 50 years, now the object of her hatred and distrust.

Rooted to the ground, she could not be persuaded to budge. My father brought a chair out for her to sit on in the street as puzzled neighbours passed by, but it was to be hours before she could be induced to go back inside with ‘that man’.

Me, my husband and our two younger daughters were all flying back that day anyway, but this time the flight seemed to take for ever. I drove straight round to my old family home, thankfully just a couple of streets away.

My mother’s relief at seeing me was palpable, but she had no memory of what had gone on the day before. She wasn’t even really aware that I’d been away for a week.

I sat holding her small fragile hands, fighting back the tears. I could see in her eyes that something had switched off inside her brain. I knew I’d never be able to reach her again.

My mother’s mental deterioration had begun insidiously about two years before, but this was different. Yes, gradual memory loss had been followed by anxiety and mild agoraphobia, but she’d never taken out her anxieties on anyone else — and never on my father.

My mother was an intelligent woman who had been a ballet dancer in her youth and was painfully aware of her changing condition. She had watched her own mother disintegrate with senile dementia in her 80s, and although it was never talked about, she knew that this was most likely what was happening to her as well.

As for me, I didn’t need a doctor’s diagnosis to know that she was changing.

For she and I had a common interest — gardening — that had bonded us for years, and when she lost interest in her plants, I knew that something was deeply wrong.

There is something about tending a garden that is enormously comforting.

It aligns you with the rhythm of the seasons; it disciplines you to do the necessary jobs at the right time of the year. It brings solace from stress and, best of all, it brings the deep satisfaction of nurturing plants and flowers into glorious life.

Funnily enough, I never thought I was going to be interested in gardeningwhen I was growing up. Having to endure my mother and my aunt always comparing notes on roses and clematis, I’d innocently thought as a teenager: ‘I’ll never be like that!’

But as soon as I got a garden of my own, of course I was.

Even the rigours of looking after a young family didn’t stop me escaping into the greenhouse whenever I could. Soon sandpits and climbing frames were being edged out by herbaceous borders and vegetable patches.

Joy: Catherine's mother Clothilde pictured at a public garden in 
1992. The mother and daughter spent years discussing their love of 
gardening

Joy: Catherine's mother Clothilde pictured at a public garden in 1992. The mother and daughter spent years discussing their love of gardening

And the loveliest part was that I could talk to my mother about it. We visited gardens together, went on day trips to nurseries, returning with a car laden with plant purchases — and often with two of everything because we both wanted the same rare claret-red astrantia or silver-edged hosta.

Phone calls between us would always start with a catch-up on the granddaughters, but then immediately turn to discussion on some new seed discovery or garden worth visiting.

While I was competitive (the gardening bug had truly taken hold) and entered local horticultural competitions, Mum wasn’t at all. But it was no surprise to me when I heard that she’d won a competition organised by a local newspaper where the judges pick their favourite gardens ‘seen from the street’, without the owners even knowing they’ve been to see it.

Her front patch had a magical air, looking more like the kind of cottage garden you’d expect to stumble over in the country than pass in a busy London suburb.

Plants toppled over the low fence, alchemilla seedlings and lily-of-the-valley popped up between paving stones, and the scent of shrub roses stopped passers-by in their tracks.

It was not unusual to look out of the front window and see someone just standing and staring at the wild beauty of it all. Sometimes, my mother would surprise them by popping up from behind the plants she’d been weeding to chat or press plant cuttings on them — cuttings they often helped themselves to on passing anyway.

She never minded, always taking it as a compliment.

In the past few years I’ve been researching the links between women and gardening, and unsurprisingly found that gardening runs in families, and often between mothers and daughters.

In the 1820s, Charlotte Marryat — one of the first women to exhibit at the soon to be 'Royal' Horticultural Society - passed her love of gardening on to several of her 15 children.

One daughter, called Fanny (later Mrs Palliser) moved to Italy, from where she supplied her mother with many rarities. I can empathise with their relationship.

In a single year, Fanny sent her mother around 100 plants and seeds, about half of which had never been grown in Britain before.

Imagine the excitement when they germinated in one of Charlotte's many greenhouses at her home in Wimbledon.

Charlotte Marryat had been widowed in middle age and was one of many women I have come across who saw their gardens as a sanctuary from loneliness, bereavement or depression.

Broken marriages, lost children, divorce and death: women who gardened have always seemed to be able to escape mental anguish when working on their plot.

The same happened to me as my mother's mental state continued to deteriorate. Far from being a painful place to be because of memories of our happier times, my garden became somewhere I could stay in touch with the person she used to be. It was the place I'd rushed to on leaving her the day I got back from holiday.

I would have done so anyway to check on my precious plants, but that day they meant more to me than ever. I was trying to hold myself together for the sake of the family, but in the garden I could be myself and cry - which I did

frequently when I came across a favourite rose we'd bought together, or while driving my spade into the ground with a force born out of the unfairness of it all.

Broken marriages, lost children, divorce and death: women who gardened have always seemed to be able to escape mental anguish when working on their plot


It was shortly after the incident in the street that my mother stopped eating and seemed, perhaps not surprisingly, to lose the will to live. Every day was spent trying to coax her to take some food, or drink some revoltingly sweet dietary supplement.

But it was an impossible task and her condition deteriorated. Only in the evening, back in my garden once more, did life seem strangely normal, with birds singing and flowers blooming. It was my sanctuary from the horror we were witnessing.

Few other degenerative diseases strip someone of their personality quite so thoroughly as Alzheimer's. Watching someone you love become so diminished is agony.

At the first signs, there is the denial that this can be happening. Then there is anger with the illness itself; and sometimes even anger with the person themselves for no longer being who they were.

And finally there is the living bereavement: mourning someone who is still alive but no longer with you.

Most forms of dementia can be seen as a reversal of the rapid brain development that happens during childhood. Just as the flower develops and opens in early life, so it slowly shrinks and dies later.

My mother never recovered from that day she sat in the street. She died less than two months later.

We moved her into a nursing home for what were to be the last three weeks of her life, although we didn't know that at the time.

My father protested long and loud, but finally agreed that he could no longer care for her himself. When she needed to be moved he couldn't lift her, although her tiny dancer's body then weighed only 6 stone.

We chose a room for her overlooking the neatly manicured gardens of the nursing home. The garden was not her style at all, but there was a wild hope that it might jog some happier hor t icul tural memories.

Every time I left her bedside, it was torture. I never knew whether I would see her alive again; but also I didn't want her to suffer any more.

And so I retreated to my garden. Here was the peace, calm and continuity which kept me sane. There were always jobs to be done that made no emotional demands on me: plants to be watered, honeysuckle to be tied, roses to be deadheaded.

I filled my mother's room with flowers from both our gardens, told her how my battles with lily beetle continued, and that next door's late-flowering clematis was in full bloom. I was luckier than most, because I'm sure she knew me until the end.

It's been nearly eight years since she died, and like so many people, I could spend hours in the garden. My husband says I must stop calling it 'work' because I enjoy it too much.

In many ways, he's right. But it took this last journey with my mother to make me realise just how therapeutic gardening can be to the soul, as well as the body.

It saw me through my bereavement, and will remain a comfort for ever. But only recently have I stopped reaching for the phone when I catch sight of the first snowdrops in spring or a rare anemone on a nursery shelf.

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