Martha Wiseman was at breaking point, juggling her life as a carer while holding down a full time job. But she came through it and has found a way to manage both roles. Dan Parton reports.

This article includes:

  • Increasing problems
  • Stressed
  • Depleted and defeated
  • It’s good to talk

Increasing problems

Martha Wiseman’s problems crept up on her.

For many years the BT manager cared for her mum, while holding down a full-time job. But when her mum was diagnosed with vascular dementia, life started to spiral out of control.

An early crisis came soon after Martha’s mum, Elizabeth, was diagnosed. She was already undergoing treated in a psychiatric unit for other mental problems, but the doctors decided without warning to move her into a secure EMI (elderly mental infirm) unit at another hospital – during a bank holiday.

Elizabeth was unable to leave the locked EMI ward while she was being assessed. And in the ward she lived among elderly people in the later stages of dementia. This caused huge distress to Martha’s mum – and Martha.

“It was a shock to find my mum was on this ward,” she recalls. “She hated it, she absconded, she didn’t respond well because she was surrounded by elderly people and it wasn’t how she saw herself. That was pretty stressful.”

Meanwhile, Martha was also under pressure at BT, where she was working on a big project and hoping for promotion.

Martha: “I was having a very demanding time at work, and not only was my mum in hospital but she was unsettled, going downhill and very distressed. We’d been told she had dementia but had no support at that time.

“It was my nightmare scenario. I had no time off, no place to go and I started to lose all sense of hope about the future.”


Indeed, Martha became so stressed that she couldn’t sleep – and that was when the problems really started: “I could always cope with anything as long as I had a good night’s sleep, but I began to lose that.

“Gradually my capability to perform during the day, my ability to concentrate, work things out and get things done went into decline. This created more stress for me. I wasn’t performing well and I was trying for promotion. All my own capabilities were eroded and I wasn’t sleeping at all after a certain point.”

Nevertheless, Martha carried on for months. In retrospect, she accepts that she should have stopped long before she eventually did: “But I didn’t think of myself as a person who was vulnerable at the time. I just thought if I kept going I’d be ok, that’s what I’d always done in the past.”

Matters came to a head when Elizabeth fell and broke her hip. Martha had time off to be with her when she was discharged, but this was time she had planned to use to catch up on her work project, which she had fallen behind on. As a result she missed her deadline and failed on her project.

To compound matters, her mum had another fall and was re-admitted to hospital. She couldn’t go home again because her flat needed to be adapted to cater for her needs. This, together with the worry and long bus trips to see her in hospital, sapped the last remaining energy Martha had.

Depleted and defeated

“I was just so exhausted, depleted and defeated by it all,” she says. “I felt defeated at work, at home. I couldn’t get my mum’s flat sorted out – even getting a bed for her was a real hassle.

“I went back to work in January, sat there and thought: ‘I just can’t do anything’. I came in the next day and started tidying my desk and the third day I came in, rang my boss and said ‘I’m sorry; I’m not coming back for a while’. My body had ground to a halt and my mind was just empty.

“I’d used all my resources, I’d thrown myself at all my problems, trying to resolve them and I couldn’t get anywhere. I was in a state of shock, essentially a nervous breakdown.”

Martha visited her GP the next day, who found that her blood and cholesterol levels were “through the roof” and she was signed off work for stress.

It was only then that Martha realised how ill she was. “I could get up in the morning and make breakfast and then I’d sit there all day – I had no motivation, no energy, no drive, completely depleted,” she recalls. “I couldn’t do anything at all for several months.”

But slowly Martha began to recover and she claims three factors helped her:  she took St John’s Wort, a herb that helps combat depression; followed a nutritional programme; and undertook cognitive therapy, which seeks to identify and change ‘distorted’ or ‘unrealistic’ ways of thinking and therefore influence emotion and behaviour. While Martha had a relapse a year later – resulting in a year and a half off work – she is fit, healthy and in control of her life and has been back at work full-time for several years.

It’s good to talk

Now Martha is able to spot when she is becoming stressed and can manage her life. She appreciates that it is as important to keep track of her own emotional needs as it is of the emotional and physical needs of her mother.

She believes it is important not to keep things bottled up and to talk about any worries or problems; Martha is now a member of her local Alzheimer’s Society and goes to regular carers meetings.

“It is one of the most rewarding things I do. People are in the same boat, there are different ages, shapes and backgrounds, but what they have in common is caring for someone with dementia. It is just a release.

“Carers can come in, relax, have tea and biscuits, laugh and joke and talk things over. People come with dilemmas, what’s worrying them and there is some straight talking, a few tears, but there is also laughter about the situation people are in – everybody there understands.”

Likewise, Martha believes it is important to be open with other people, such as colleagues and bosses at work, so they understand if you have to take time off at short notice.

“People understand that you are caring for somebody and don’t have a lot of control about appointments sometimes. If they have been in the situation they understand; [for example] that the social worker is only available in the daytime and at short notice.

“If people know why, they are accepting and not judgemental. Most people eventually know someone or care for someone in some shape or form and people are genuinely ok.”