I was probably most use to my mother in the years when she no longer knew who I was.by Andy Davis / April 23, 2015 / Leave a comment
It is a strange feeling to read your parent’s bank statements. Few things in our mother’s final years return to me as strongly as the sense that in doing this we had all crossed a line. No part of her independence would now be protected from the gaze of others, and where once these monthly ledgers had recorded her peculiar, patchwork blend of thrift and generosity, from that moment they became something entirely different: a stark, monochrome reckoning of the relentless arithmetic of old age.
As Easter 2010 approached it became clear that our mother, then aged 85, could no longer live safely in the house she shared with our step-father and that she would have to move into a care home. We—my sister and two older brothers—had known for some time that her dementia would eventually lead us to its door but it was only when this moment came that I began to understand the task that we were taking on. My sister held an enduring power of attorney, which had enabled her to help my mother manage her affairs while she was still living at home and meant that when the time came to move her, we could take control immediately and start to figure out where we would find the money to keep her safe and well cared for as the disease crept over her.
It was then that I first peered into the contents of her bank account. I already knew that she had a teacher’s pension coming in, along with her state pension, and it was clear that she could pay her share of the modest outgoings. What struck me, however, were the direct debits. I counted 27 monthly payments to charities of all sorts, including more than one to the Alzheimer’s Society, each relatively small though adding up to a sum that we could no longer spare. But how to make the break? These were causes she had chosen to support and with which she had felt a connection. I couldn’t just cancel them all without warning so I wrote to each of the charities, briefly explaining our mother’s circumstances and informing them that we had no choice but to end her monthly contributions immediately. Perhaps it was a waste of stamps but it felt like the right thing to do and, more importantly, the thing she would have done.
Inevitably, however, it also felt like I was erasing part of who she was, replacing her selfless impulse and general disregard for money and material things with my own dispassionate focus on income and expenditure. There was no escaping it: our situation had just changed in huge and fundamental ways and if we were to do the best for her in these final years we were going to have to accept something that I, at least, had not understood until then.
As she declined, and the dementia gradually peeled away the layers of her personality, our mother was slowly disappearing. This had, of course, been happening for some years already but now the time had come for us to step into the space that she was leaving behind and to replace her thoughts and judgements with our own. My role became that of her financial guardian, figuring out how to make the sums add up and at the beginning only dimly aware that the warmth and emotional intimacy of my relationship with her would, in the process, give way to a pre-occupation with the numbers on her bank statements, a monthly record of income and outgoings that no longer bore any trace of her choices and idiosyncrasies.
She had stopped work at 60, in summer 1985, and therefore by the time she entered the care home in Hertfordshire where she spent her final years she had already been retired for a quarter of a century. I couldn’t help but wonder how her longevity compared with others of her age and it was no surprise to discover that she had fared better than many of her contemporaries. A woman reaching 65 in 1990 could on average expect to live for about 18 years: our mother would carry on for another 25 in excellent physical health throughout. When I went with her to A&E at our local hospital, the pneumonia that would prove to be her last illness having taken hold, the doctors there were amazed that she had no medical history worth talking about aside from her dementia, the only incident shown on her record being a sprained wrist two years earlier.
Her rude physical health was of course a blessing that we were all thankful for, and during the first 15 to 20 years of her retirement it enabled her and our step-father to enjoy many of the pleasures that people envisage for themselves once they escape the bonds of salary, children and mortgage. They went on holiday to unlikely places, visited friends in other parts of the country and immersed themselves in the life of the village where they had settled, gradually slowing down after about 2002 as our step-father became less mobile and our mother’s dementia began to make its presence felt.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that their financial affairs followed the pattern that many comfortably-off people sketch out in retirement—travel and good living to begin with, when liberty and physical capability co-incide, giving way progressively to a more sedate pace in the middle years with correspondingly lower outgoings. It’s what happens to those that live long enough to enter advanced old age that we had to concentrate on. At this point, people’s spending tends to pick up again as their care needs increase and they have to pay for modifications to their homes in order to carry on living there as the vast majority wish to do. For old people who reach the point of needing full-time care the bills start to rise dramatically.
In financial terms our mother did extremely well out of the system. She enjoyed a guaranteed, inflation-proofed occupational pension for 30 years of retirement—considerably longer than the average woman of her age could expect, and not very much less than the length of her working life given that she bore four children along the way. Add to this the fact that she was enormously frugal and a saver by temperament, and she reached 85 in pretty good shape financially. But even for someone with as much going in her favour as this, the huge step up in spending that came with her move into residential care posed a serious challenge. One day, she was a comfortably-off old lady, meandering along with enough money to be able to give away a couple of hundred pounds a month in charitable donations without feeling a pinch, the next she was facing monthly bills approaching £3,000 and needed to find far more income than she currently had, and quickly.
Given this kind of imperative, there was clearly no choice but to shed every penny of spending that we could and concentrate on how to make her savings and investments work as hard as possible to support her. Partly because I had recently left my job and had time on my hands, and partly because of my own interests and convictions, I decided that the way to do this was to manage her money myself. I could justify this by arguing that handing the problem over to professionals would involve paying fees to others to do things that I had the time and ability to do myself, albeit I would have no one else to blame if the results did not turn out as we hoped. But if I’m honest, the real reason was that I wanted to be seen to take on the responsibility and to be able to say that I did practical things that had real value for my mother at a point in her life when she most needed my help. The grim irony, looking back, is that I was probably more use to her in the years during which she no longer knew who I was than in the four decades-plus that went before.
Helping to look after your parents in old age is both natural and, in my experience, necessary. Not simply because they need increasing amounts of help of all sorts, but because we need to feel that we are doing what we can and that we are facing the reality of their situation with them. They bring us into the world and we see them out of it. So I dived into the practical problems of funding our mother’s residential care with energy and commitment: it needed doing and I needed to do it. How else, at times like these, is one supposed to feel like a good son or daughter?
Once we had tracked it all down, it turned out that she had a reasonably substantial pot of savings and investments, most of which had lain untouched for years in funds that did not pay her an income but instead rolled all her dividends back into the fund in order to increase the size of her holding. If only she had had the benefit a decade earlier of someone to help her shift these investments into assets that could have generated a decent and low-risk stream of income, the shortfall she now faced might have been rather less daunting. But knowing her, I’m sure she had felt she had plenty of money to meet her needs without touching these investments. Unfortunately, by the time we took over, there were few attractive ways left for us to create additional income from her capital, thanks to the collapse in interest rates and in the yields offered by the safest bonds. We did what we could. We started drawing dividend income from some funds and moved others into higher-yielding bond investments that provided a return of 5 to 6 per cent. Coupled with the generous Feed-in Tariff income from some solar panels we installed for her, we began to bridge the gap between her income and the monthly bills, albeit by leaving her exposed to more risk than I would ideally have liked.
But these efforts on their own were never going to be enough. Thankfully we had another option. Back in 1978, shortly after our father died, our mother had bought a small cottage in south Dorset as a holiday home. I went there during most of my school holidays and up until her late 70s she used to decamp there for several weeks at a time, intent on reasserting control over its large and unruly garden. It was a battle that proved increasingly one-sided. Eventually, after she and our step-father gave up driving, the visits stopped and the place was left alone to crumble in peace.
By the time she went into the care home, the cottage had been largely unused for several years and if you knew where to look you could spot daylight through the cracks in the walls. The smell of damp hung in the gloom. Seven or eight years before, my eldest brother and I had waged a campaign with our mother and step-father to let us take over responsibility for it but had been politely rebuffed so we withdrew and let events take their course. Now, we felt quietly vindicated but faced an inevitable choice. We could accept that things had gone too far to salvage, sell it in its run down state and spend whatever we could get on funding her care. Alternatively, we could take a calculated gamble with a portion of her investments and renovate it with the aim of letting it to holidaymakers, our hope being that the extra income would cover her bills while the resulting rise in its value would at least offset the sum we would need to spend.
“All the while in the middle of all this activity sat our mother, benign and becalmed by the dementia, gradually fading from view”
The pragmatic choice, I’m sure, would have been to sell it there and then, but none of us felt truly comfortable with that idea. This place had meant a great deal to her: giving up on it felt tantamount to giving up on her. Having left my job in May 2010 I was in a position to take the gamble that keeping it would involve and so I decided to embark on the renovation project and give it the time that it would need. This turned out to be around nine months, and the following Easter, having gutted and refurbished the place inside and out, we were ready to start letting it out. As it turned out, we had about four years of decent income from it that enabled us to cover the care home bills with only occasional recourse to small sums of her savings.
Now that the cottage’s work is done, I’m proud to have been able to put my energy and experience to good use to help support our mother. She was present in the place and working to restore it in some way allowed me to believe I was saving something of her, holding back the inevitable. But more than that, this episode impressed on me the inescapable truth that as the adult child of an aged parent, trying to do right by them and keep them safe, emotional ties and shared history overwhelm rational decision-making and financial pragmatism.
In situations like this, the decisions are always messy and the abiding feeling is that “I wouldn’t start from here.” Perhaps she should have handed the place over to us years before, as we had asked, so that we could have arrested its decline. But that would have been impossible and to think otherwise is to wish away the huge obstacles that exist when we try to do things that in the cold light seem obvious and rational, such as taking responsibility for our parents when the weight is starting to pull them down. The cottage was a wreck because she and our step-father had insisted on retaining control of it way past the point at which they could do so in practice. Her savings lay for too long in inappropriate investments because her reluctance to hand over control (and ours to take it until there was no choice) meant inertia won the day.
If somehow we had been able to talk candidly about these things, we might have found a better way to deal with them. But that is rarely possible in practice, and it wasn’t something we were able to do. So our mother and step-father held on to the trappings of their independence and we let them. This wasn’t because we or they were misguided or that they didn’t trust us. It was because like everyone else, they simply did not want to face the implications of having to trust us, and of acknowledging that the time had come to start letting go. Who would?
And that is also why, when it came to deciding what best to do with her crumbling holiday cottage, none of us was ready to face the implications of turning our back on it and selling. The place tied us to our shared past; the money would just speak to us of the inevitable events that lay ahead. So we clung to the cottage in our turn, putting love and care into its restoration, delighting in the praise it won from visitors experiencing its magic for the first time, and gathering in the money that it made month by month to keep the bills paid. And it worked. We got away with our gamble long enough to see our mother to the end and, just as important, to see something of her reborn, the decay and decline wiped away.
For me, of course, all this activity was therapy. I stayed busy and focused on the things that by exercising willpower I could change, in order to escape the shadow of those that I could not. This did achieve something worthwhile—we made the money she needed but we also reached a more emotionally satisfactory outcome than simple pragmatism would have offered. And all the while in the middle of all this activity sat our mother, benign and becalmed by the dementia, gradually fading from view.