FOR MUM-OF-FOUR Julie Murrell, Christmas morning will begin like any other.
"The day starts at about seven for me - I'll get up and go for a two-mile run, just to try and get my head right," said Julie, 46, of Murthering Lane, Stapleford Abbotts.
"Then I wash mum and do all her personal care. That takes about two hours and then we give her breakfast. Everything is spoon fed."
Julie is a full-time carer for her 81-year-old mother Peggy, who is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s.
"Christmas is hard. I’d just love to be able to say ‘I think I’ll have tomorrow off, just sit and chill’," said Julie, who juggles her caring duties with looking after her two sons and two daughters, aged from eight to 22.
"There’s always something to think about – is her breathing ok, does she look flushed, has she got an infection?"
Peggy, 81, was diagnosed with the disease seven years ago and it became clear soon after that Julie's dad Eric, 90, was struggling to care for his beloved wife.
Julie made the difficult decision to rent out her home and move, with her husband and children, into her parents' farmhouse.
"She'd gone from doing everything, running the house, looking after animals - really lively and healthy," said Julie.
"She would become really, really aggressive. We had to do everything for her.
"She used to hit me - it was terrible."
Peggy is now bedbound and, because she suffers regular fits, can never be left alone.
Julie has moved her own bed into her mother’s room in case she needs support during the night.
"It's easier now in a way, but more intense, because you're having to do everything for your mum and you shouldn't have to do that,” said Julie.
"You don't notice it when you're doing it, but looking back it's taken its toll. It's definitely changed me.”
Despite the challenges of caring for Peggy, Julie and Eric were determined to keep her in the family home she knew and loved.
But, as her health deteriorated, they had no choice but to call on outside carers to lighten the load. They tried care agencies, but found none of them could cope with Peggy’s illness.
Then a social worker recommended Julie contact Crossroads Care, an Epping-based charity that provides regular respite for carers.
Carers Sheila and Loretta – who have 40 years experience between them - have been helping with Peggy’s personal care for the past five years.
They provide six hours of support four days a week and take Julie’s place for two nights weekly.
"I try now and then to have a night away and Sheila stays a night, so I know I don’t have to worry," said Julie.
"Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to go – there’s no way dad could cope with mum."
Crossroads has been running for 26 years and currently offers support to 475 carers of all ages in Redbridge, Epping Forest and Harlow.
"Without Crossroads I would have had to put mum into a home, which would have broken my heart and been difficult for dad to see," said Julie.
"He’s made her his life. He sits beside her bed all the time, holding her hand.
"They call it the long goodbye and it really is."
For more information about Crossroads, call 01992 572 557, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.carers.org.uk/redbridgeeppingharlow.