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Meet The Mail’s Carer Of The Year

May 12, 2010

It was a day when the great and the good gathered to honour the unsung heroes who devote their lives to caring for others. Yesterday, at a gala awards ceremony at the Marriott hotel in Central London, a host of celebrities applauded the tireless efforts of the five finalists in the Mail’s Carer of the Year Awards. The event was held in association with Bupa and was in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society. Thousands of entries were submitted by readers, but in the end it came down to one winner.

Every morning, Anne Ravenscroft gently wakes her beloved daughter Heidi so that she can wash and dress her ready to start the day.

Later, as she carefully spoon-feeds Heidi her breakfast, Anne chats about the weather, and the birds she can see through the window, in between telling her daughter what a very special girl she is.

All day long, Anne is there to wait on her daughter’s every need  –  be it changing her nappy, feeding her, lifting her up, or taking her for walks. Nothing is too big or small a demand.

But Anne is no new mother getting on with the daily routine of caring for her baby: she is 81 and a grandmother.

And her 46-year-old daughter is so severely disabled that she can’t speak, walk or do anything without her mother’s help.

Heidi has a neurological condition called Rett Syndrome, which has left her doubly incontinent, physically and mentally impaired, and unable to communicate. She cannot even get into her wheelchair by herself.

Ever since she was born, her main carer has been her mum, Anne  –  a remarkable lady for whom slipping into old age and enjoying the chance for her children to look after her has never been an option.

For 46 years, Anne has thrown herself into this exhausting role, and continues to fulfil her daughter’s every need with the energy and vigour of a woman many years her junior.

‘It was absolutely devastating when Heidi was diagnosed, especially to know there was nothing we could do to cure her’

And it is for this unstinting devotion and tireless dedication that Anne has been crowned winner of the Daily Mail Carer of the Year awards.

Our panel of judges chose Anne because of her unfaltering patience and kindness, and the good grace and modesty with which she continues to carry out this role at an age when even the most dedicated carer might be thinking of retirement.

Her husband Reg, an 82-year- old retired Kodak technician from Gloucestershire, nominated her, supported by their two other daughters and son.

Reg says he has always been in awe of his wife  –  and of the incredible love and devotion she has shown not only to Heidi but to the whole family.

Reg recalls: ‘It was absolutely devastating when Heidi was diagnosed, especially to know there was nothing we could do to cure her.

‘But Anne was tremendous. She never bemoaned her lot, never looked for honour or reward; she just did her job, which was to care for her daughter.

‘She has only ever acted out of love, and she has never stopped caring for Heidi, even when her own bad health has got in the way. In fact, winning the award won’t change her life one bit, because she truly is selfless through and through.

‘The award will actually mean as much, if not more, to me and our other three children. Finally we get to see my wife, their mother  –  a wonderful lady, who every day makes us feel proud and blessed to have her in our lives  –  honoured for her incredible dedication to the little girl who has never stopped needing her.’

Anne admits that her relationship with Heidi is unique.

‘I suppose, on paper, it doesn’t really seem possible,’ she says with a smile. ‘Here you have an 81-year- old pensioner looking after her 46-year-old daughter. Anyone reading that would say that it should, surely, be the other way around.’

In fact, Heidi was a perfectly normal baby when she was born in 1964. She was the picture of health, and up until the age of 18 months was like any other baby. She’d started walking and talking, and was proudly calling Anne ‘Mummy’.

But the last time Anne heard that word was 44 years ago, when Heidi was two. Not long after that, Heidi began a regression from which she was never to recover.

Over a period of five years, Heidi, the youngest of Anne and Reg’s four children, lost the ability to feed herself, to sit unaided, then to use her hands, until, finally, she could no longer walk.

But medical science was not as advanced as it is now, and despite a battery of tests, no doctor was able to diagnose Heidi’s condition.

‘Heidi was a bonny, happy little thing, who had started to walk and talk,’ says Anne. ‘She was the baby of the family, and we all spoilt her rotten. She was bright, and funny, and brought such joy to us all.

‘I still look at photographs and films we took from that time and wonder at how quickly and dramatically everything changed.

‘I remember the doctor telling us that they had no idea what had caused it. He sent us away with the words: “This is your problem  –  and probably will be for the rest of your life.”

‘I looked at my beautiful little girl and vowed there and then that I would never see her as a problem, but as a blessing. And even now, that is precisely what she is to me.’

By the age of seven, Heidi was so ill she was confined to a wheelchair.

‘It was like caring for a newborn again  –  but one that can’t even cry,’ says Anne. ‘She literally couldn’t make a sound, and it broke my heart that my daughter couldn’t express what she was feeling to me.

‘Heidi’s condition has never improved. She still can’t speak, walk or move unaided, or feed herself. All that has changed over the years is her body, which has become that of a woman.

‘Looking after her is physical work, with a great deal of lifting, so it’s fortunate that Reg and I have stayed fit into our old age.’

Not that Anne feels her age. ‘I don’t feel any older now than I did 40 years ago,’ she says. ‘Looking after Heidi has kept me young.

‘That’s one of the many things that I’m thankful to her for. It’s an incredible thing still to be so needed by someone at my age. In many ways, that feels like a gift in itself.

‘When I do get tired, I don’t think “Poor me”, I think “Poor Heidi”. I often wonder what life might have been like for her if she hadn’t been born with this condition. Thinking of what she has missed out on has always been my inspiration for making sure that she feels loved and wanted by me.’

Heidi was in her 20s when her parents saw a TV programme about Rett Syndrome, a neurological disorder that predominantly affects girls, and recognised all the symptoms in their own daughter.

Professor Rett, the doctor who had discovered the condition, confirmed the diagnosis some months later.

‘Up until then, we’d looked after her following common sense. We fed Heidi, we kept her clean and warm, and we loved her.

‘We made sure that she was included in every aspect of family life. She came on every holiday, on every day out, and was there at every birthday party and special occasion.

‘Getting a diagnosis didn’t change any of that. There was nothing anyone could do to help her beyond what we were already doing. The only difference was that now her condition had a name.’

Up until Heidi was 33, Anne continued to be her main carer.

But when Anne developed breast cancer, and needed surgery and radiotherapy treatment, arrangements were made for Heidi to go into a care home dedicated to adults with Rett Syndrome.

‘It was heartbreaking, letting her go,’ says Anne. ‘But at that stage we didn’t know whether I would get better, so we needed some back-up.

‘We also had to deal with the fact that Reg was 70 and I was 69. Even if I did recover, the chances were that Heidi would outlive us both, and arrangements had to be put in place for when we were gone.’

Happily, Anne did make a full recovery. She not only continued to care for Heidi, she even nursed Reg back to health when he had open-heart surgery in 2005 following a massive heart attack.

Now, Heidi splits her time between the care home and her family home, spending at least 12 days every month with her parents.

‘It’s hard work,’ admits Anne. ‘We eat our breakfast at eight, and then we get Heidi up, washed and fed. If the weather’s nice we take her for a walk in her wheelchair; otherwise we just sit and chat with her in between mealtimes and remind her how very loved she is.

‘We give her lots of cuddles and continue to include her in all that we do. It doesn’t feel like very much to me, because it’s what we’ve always done.’

When Heidi goes back to the home, Anne says that she and Reg miss her terribly.

‘Heidi can’t speak, she can’t laugh and she can’t cry. But when she’s gone, the house feels horribly quiet.

‘I know that Heidi is happy when her eyes shine a little brighter, and sometimes I even catch a brief glimpse of the faintest of smiles. When she’s sad or uncomfortable, a tiny furrow appears on her brow.

‘But beyond that I can’t know what she’s feeling or thinking. The main thing for me is that my daughter knows that I love her, and I only have to look into her face to feel sure that she does.

‘Heidi has taught me a level of compassion and understanding that no one else could. She has given my life great purpose and meaning, which is a gift far greater than anything I have ever done for her.’

Anne’s eldest daughter, Suzanne, says that she speaks for all her siblings when she says that their mother has been a great influence on all their lives.

‘Mum never grumbles and she never complains, no matter what life throws at her. She has taught us, by example, that no problem is insurmountable, and that love and family truly are what matter most.

‘We grew up believing that our sister was special rather than handicapped, and somehow Mum still found the time and energy to make us all feel special, too. She really is an incredible woman, and we’re so proud that she has been acknowledged in this way.

‘In our eyes, all carers are unsung heroes  –  but what’s special about Mum is the fact that she’s been doing this for so long, and will continue to care for our sister for many years to come. She’s not just Carer of the Year, she’s Carer of the Century.’

Meanwhile, Anne says that while winning this award makes her feel happy and proud, it won’t make her life any richer than it already is, because nothing ever could.

‘I’m very touched that other people have seen good in what I’ve done,’ she says. ‘There are so many carers who are never acknowledged, and perhaps need a little more help than they are getting right now.

‘I hope our story will make people think about the many other carers out there who are just getting on with it, just as we always have.

‘I’m fortunate in that I’ve always had lots of support, especially from my husband. We really are a great team.

‘But for my part, I have only ever done what has always come naturally to me when faced with my vulnerable and helpless child. Looking after Heidi has felt like a privilege every step of the way. Thanks to her, and all of my children, I’ve known more joy in my life than heartache.

‘My daughter has never felt like a burden, and caring for her has never been a chore. Heidi is my child and she still needs me. That’s all there is to it.’

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