September 3, 2010: money matters?

By Duncan McLaren , Friday 3 September 2010

Alphabet T This week a conversation about money takes writer Duncan McLaren and his mother, Mabel, down memory lane, to a time when care funding barely existed
Mabel McLarenMabel McLaren

I’ve come to the home this evening with a view to explaining something to Mum. Not sure if I’ll succeed in this, but I want to give it a go. So once we’re sitting down in her room with a cup of tea and a biscuit, I kick off.

"You know how I have a power of attorney over your affairs, Mum?"

Mabel looks blank.

"When you came in here a couple of years ago, you had quite a lot of money at the bank. But each month I’ve had to make out a big cheque to the care home. So, of course, your money has declined and it now stands at just above £20,000 as far as the local authority is concerned."

As I’ve been talking I’ve been writing figures down in large characters on a sheet of paper, in case this might help Mum take in what I’m saying. She was always good at mental arithmetic and the last time I threw darts at a dartboard she was able to help add up my score.

"No need to look so worried," I say, reassuringly. "This is good news. Because now the local authority is taking over the payment of your monthly bill."

Mum bites on her biscuit and sips her tea. As yet, she’s saying nothing.

The financial assessment took place at our family home recently in Mum’s absence. The first thing I learned from the young woman who conducted it was that Mabel, who didn’t work much after she got married and so receives only a small state pension, is entitled to Pension Credit. And although this can be backdated for three months, it means that Mum has missed out on several thousand pounds. But the good news is that some of Mabel’s investments are life assurance bonds. The council employee confirmed for me that these are disregarded when calculating a care home resident’s capital. And so I discovered that Mum would be left with a few thousand pounds more than the official minimum.

"Good old Miss Wilson!" says Mabel, suddenly.

"Good old Miss Wilson?" I repeat, wondering if Mum has taken a stab at naming the financial assessment officer.

"Every morning, every evening, every night, Mother went up the road to see to her."

It dawns on me that Miss Wilson was an old lady who was looked after by Mabel’s own mother.

"Miss Wilson would have died years before if Mother hadn’t seen to her."

If I remember rightly, when this Miss Wilson died, she left Fernbank, the house that my mother and her family had long occupied as tenants, to Mabel’s mother.

Mum continues: "Miss Wilson’s aunt must have had some kind of hole in her head to keep all that money."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, it’s just an expression," says Mum.

Come to think of it, 'I needed that like I needed a hole in the head,' is an expression that Mum used to employ. So I guess that what Mabel may be trying to say is that Miss Wilson’s 'aunt' needed Miss Wilson to leave a valuable asset like Fernbank to Mabel’s mother like she needed a hole in the head.

I judge from what Mum goes on to say that in the end, Miss Wilson’s relation accepted that Mabel’s mother deserved the legacy. But I really am guessing here. Mabel doesn’t express herself clearly nowadays and often finds it difficult to elaborate a statement, or even repeat a question or an answer.

At this point there is a noise at the door and another resident enters.

"Get out! Get out! Get out!" says Mabel, clearly enough. "Scat!" She adds with the same ferocity that she used to show any cat that transgressed on to her property.

"It’s OK Mum, she’s just lost her way. Besides, what would your mother think if she saw you shouting at a harmless old lady?" I get up and help Hettie, who is a bit bemused by the reception she’s received, to turn around and retrace her footsteps along the corridor.

It’s only when I’m back sitting in the room and find myself thinking again about Mum’s 'Good old Miss Wilson,' exclamation that I realise its further significance. In Mum’s dementia, and obviously at a subconscious level, she’s managed to say something that contrasts today’s system of caring for the elderly with the way it was done a couple of generations ago. Talking to Mum about her own situation has managed to bring to the forefront of her mind an elderly person who needed looking after when Mabel was in her formative years, which is the time of her life that her thoughts most often return to. Back then, your family looked after you, if you were lucky. But if you didn’t have family you were finished, such was the inadequacy of social services, unless, like Miss Wilson, you had a Good Samaritan for a neighbour. Nowadays, the state provides a much more reliable safety net. Though I’m sure many people still fall through it.

"Is Mother still alive?" asks Mum, as she so often does.

As usual, I tell Mum that her own mother died in the year I was born, more than half a century ago.

"Why did no-one tell me?"

"Of course you were told, Mum. It’s just that you’ve forgotten."

As we’re speaking, I get out the oldest of Mabel’s photo albums. She likes to look at the picture that shows her mother in her pomp, surrounded by five of her seven children, including Mabel, the youngest child, in the foreground.

"What happened to Mother?"

"She had several strokes. When you got married, you wrote in your 1956 diary that your mother was comfortable but that she didn’t realise what was happening as you nipped off to the registry office."

Mum ponders in silence this turning point in her life.

"The next year, when you were pregnant with me, your mother was well looked after at home during her final illness by your sisters."

Mabel comes to life at this: "Not by Edith! She would have been hopeless."

I nod: "Your mother, who looked after people all her adult life, was well looked after at the end of her days by Meg, May and Jean."

"Where is Jean?" asks Mum of her gentlest sister.

This time I’m the one who’s not sure what to say. Oh, dear. Fancy me coming here this evening and thinking I could get away with talking about money.

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