When people ask me who I am writing about, I tell them it’s my aunt.
My aunt was born in 1902 and is now in her 94th year. Over the last ten years, even before the death of her brother – my father – I have held power of attorney in respect of her affairs. From a bureaucratic point of view her life could hardly have been more simple. She never married, looked after her parents and, when they died, lived on alone. Except for the war years when she worked in the telephone exchange and for a mobile library, she never had an office job, and during the last period of her life has had pretty well no income besides the state pension. In view of this simplicity it is puzzling to me how complex and voluminous her papers have grown – papers that I must try to understand and manage.
Some weeks, it seems to me, most of my mail is really for my aunt: correspondence from the Residents’ Association, the Nursing Group, Willing Hands, the Homecare Service, the Health Centre, the Social Services Department of the County Council, the Department of Social Security in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the Review Section of the Disability Benefits Unit at Blackpool, the Benefits Agency in Surrey; from Barclays Personal Taxation Service, from her solicitor and estate agent. It all conveys a world very different from any my aunt would have recognised.
I saw a good deal of her while I was young because, during the war and then again after my parents divorced, I was largely brought up by my paternal grandparents in the wicked town of Maidenhead. I didn’t know it was wicked until later when I read the novels of Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton. My aunt certainly wasn’t wicked. When she stepped out of the house she would usually go, not down into the town itself, but in the other direction up to what were called ‘the fields’ and on to Maidenhead Thicket. She was away for hours. She always went with a dog: a labrador or sheepdog or latterly a rather ridiculous looking schnauzer which was to feature prominently in my father’s will and which he used to billet on her.
On the whole my aunt preferred dogs to people; she also preferred being outdoors to indoors; and she enjoyed avoiding all family meals and eating alone. I envied her that. She seemed to me unusually self-sufficient in those days, though I noticed that she had a weakness for romantic films, musicals and, to my surprise, sophisticated women’s magazines – Vogue, Harpers, even the Tatler – in which she glanced addictively at a world that, so I imagined, had once beckoned her.
I was often a problem to my grandparents. ‘But what shall we do with the boy?’ they would cry. Whatever it was, my aunt would usually be delegated to do it. My father, busy fighting the war, rescuing businesses, remarrying abroad, would suddenly appear with spectacular presents for me – things he had picked up such as a cricket bat, golf-club or air-gun. Then he was off again, leaving my aunt to bowl at me over the kitchen garden (we were digging for victory) or take me on at tennis on the public courts – strange games of mixed singles. I thought myself a natural sportsman, but I got things wrong. Enthusiastically raising my father’s golf-club while in the dining-room I knocked my aunt on the head and we had to ring for the ambulance. Then there was the incident with the air-gun ...
They are not all happy memories. But without my aunt life would have been unendurably dull at Maidenhead. I had forgotten until recently how much I owed her. During the war she would take me in the mobile library van to the German prisoner-of-war camps. I stayed outside the friendly barbed wire and was given to understand that the Germans stayed inside, never attempting to escape, because my aunt’s choice of thrillers and romances held them there entranced.
In my teens I spent a lot of time at the new public library. My aunt patronised the private lending library at Boots the Chemist. But growing curious about my library, she followed me there, was dazzled by what she saw and, like many middle-class people round the country, became a convert to the public library system. Being cautious, she would lightly roast the books in our oven for the sake of the germs.
After her parents died, my aunt went on with her solitary walks and secret meals, kept up her reading and film-going. Then, over a dozen years ago, everything changed. One day, while coming back from Maidenhead Thicket, my aunt had a stroke. People who saw her didn’t know what was wrong. She tried to get a lift from a milk-float, but the driver thought she was drunk. How she got back I never found out, but after reaching the house she collapsed. My father, telephoning about his dog, could get no answer. Eventually he telephoned the police. They broke in, and my aunt was taken to hospital.
After her stroke she became severely paralysed. There was no question of her returning to live alone in the heavily-mortgaged Maidenhead house: but that is what she wanted to do. My father argued with her, almost bullied her in his exasperation and concern. He had all the facts on his side, and I took his part. But even as I went over it all with her in the hospital, using my most persistently reasonable bedside voice, I knew there was an essential part of her life not touched by this battery of facts. In her illness, over the years, she was to enter ever more deeply into this dense world of facts and forms, Commission brochures and Charter statements. And I was to be her guide.
The question had now changed to: ‘What shall we do with my aunt?’ What we did, what we had to do, was to sell the house she had lived in for fifty years and buy her a ground-floor flat fifty miles away in the building where my father lived. It was adapted for a person with disabilities, and here she started a new chapter in her life.
The contrast with her previous life was startling. She, who had been so independent, now depended for almost everything on a team of nurses and helpers. Instead of disappearing across the fields, she sat all day in a wheelchair; instead of eating alone, she was fed meals-on-wheels. She missed her home, sometimes suspecting that she had been cheated, and placed some blame on my father and myself. Would it not have been better, when so much must change for the worse, to hold on to familiar surroundings and as much of the shell of her old life as possible?
One of the virtues of the new regime was that my father could keep an eye on her. In practice this did not work so well as we expected. My father was now rather deaf; his sister’s speech had been badly affected by her stroke. So they could not easily communicate and within minutes would grow furious with each other as if their impairments were being purposely exploited. ‘She does it deliberately,’ my father complained to me after my aunt had failed to ‘speak up’.
He had forgotten her stroke. Soon he was forgetting more: where he was and sometimes who he was. Though I did not realise it at once, he was more ill than his sister. I was obliged to take on power of attorney on his behalf. When out in the village, he would regularly lose himself. Then one day he was found unconscious in his flat, surrounded by smashed glass and china, blood and chaos. He had no friends and so had not been missed for a day or two. Later, in the hospital, he believed himself to be back at a Royal Air Force barracks during the war. Looking round his fellow patients, he confided to me that he didn’t think much of the latest recruits.
He should never have been allowed back into the ‘community’. If there is no such thing as society there is certainly no community. During these horrific months, his easiest moments were possibly spent having tea in my aunt’s flat. She had never noticed that there was anything wrong with him, and he no longer saw that she was paralysed. So, in a sense, they shed their injuries. There was no connection between what he said to her and what she tried to say to him, but neither of them was irritated by the other anymore. These were occasions of excruciating hilarity over which, with my dual powers of attorney, I sometimes presided.
My aunt was shocked when my father died, and amazed when I explained that he had been very ill for almost two years. She had no memories of their past irritability and missed him sorely, often calling me by his name.
Being an only child and having no children of my own, I had been intermittently looking after my family for a decade, beginning with my mother who, over a long period, had died of cancer. She used to get me to telephone the hospital because ‘they take more notice of a man.’ But I have never been good at using the jargon and overcoming the technicalities that barricade illness and old age. Even my mother’s faith in masculine competence had been shaken, I remember, when the ambulance delivered her to the wrong hospital.
Now, when I wrote to my aunt’s doctor asking for a report on her medical condition following what I believed to be another stroke, he replied (I still have his letter) that ‘it would be extremely unethical to disclose details of her medical care to you or to anyone else without her formal permission.’ But formally she had no permission to give since, with enduring power of attorney, I am for such purposes my aunt. To circumvent the ethical blockage, it was necessary for me to give the doctor formal permission to speak to me. Once this Gilbertian act had been performed, the doctor was able to disclose that, although all the support services including consultant geriatricians had been mobilised, my aunt should be moved ‘as a matter of urgency’ to ‘correctly structured’ sheltered accommodation.
The trouble was that my aunt did not want to move. She had moved from Maidenhead and never been well in all the years afterwards. She wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. The doctor put all the facts to her rather as my father had once done, and hoped that I would persuade her to ‘gracefully accept’ them. But she would not. She didn’t feel in the least graceful. The doctor was in an awkward situation. What do you do if the correct decision is not taken? Or if it proves disastrous? What you do is to protect yourself so that relatives, in their grief and anger, do not have the power to damage you professionally. In his last letter to me, he concluded that if there was no practical way of achieving the sensible course, ‘serious illness or death’ might ensue. My aunt was by this time entering her 90th year.
I knew that it was within my legal powers to ignore what my aunt wanted and to do, on her behalf, what her doctor wanted – though of course he would not necessarily advise me to do this. In any event, I decided to follow my aunt’s wishes which, in practice, meant employing a private army of nurses and helpers to continue taking care of her at home.
It was an extraordinarily complex arrangement and it turned out to be extremely successful. My aunt had adapted to the restrictions of her regime far better than I would have believed and grew surprisingly cheerful. To Jean and Rita, her two special helpers, she owes happiness and the prolongation of her life. They wheeled her round the village and to the public library for coffee; they wrapped her up and took her into the garden so that she could watch the squirrels and birds; they bought her clothes, washed and arranged her hair and did much more to restore her self-esteem.
I was touched by how fond they were of her and she of them. As an example of her class and time, my aunt would now be regarded as something of a snob. Snobbishness was her form of self-protection – her superior reason for not doing things that frightened her. She overcame it in the war; now she did so again with the help of those looking after her. When she said, in her indistinct yet still decisive voice, that socialists, foreigners and those who criticised the Queen Mother should be shot, Jean and Rita would double up in laughter in which my aunt would happily join. In fact this merriment delighted her. It was all a game. She grew rather protective, I thought, towards these people who, as in a cartoon, could be shot again and again with no harm done.
For a considerable time it seemed to me that the proper way of maintaining my aunt was to pay many of the private fees myself either directly or by putting money into her bank. This, I discovered, was incorrect. What I should have done was to use up what remained of my aunt’s money until she was almost destitute and then appeal to the Social Services to assist her. But I feared that, with so much information and so little knowledge of her, the Social Services might decide that the arrangement that worked so well was ‘inefficient’ because it was so expensive. After listening to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, Age Concern and the Department of Social Security, I nevertheless decided to change my strategy in the hope of working out some partnership with the state system – what might be called a mixed economy venture.
Increasingly I needed the co-operation of various organisations. The most difficult was Barclays Bank Taxation Service. It was not beyond them to take over a year to obtain a small tax repayment from the Inland Revenue. When I urged them on, explaining my aunt’s condition and the need for money to pay for nursing, I would receive thanks and assurances that my correspondence was receiving attention. Last financial year the Barclays Taxation Adviser obtained a repayment of £189.70 which was good news to the extent that it would pay for two or three days’ nursing and upkeep. Unfortunately I was also advised that Barclays’ fees amounted to £169.40, leaving my aunt with £20.30 (an hour or two’s nursing). Fearing that my aunt would soon be unable to afford tax repayment, I wrote to the Taxation Adviser asking whether she would mind my quoting these financial calculations in this article. The matter was referred to her ‘immediate superior’, a Senior Taxation Officer. It would, he explained, be necessary for Barclays to put the facts to their Marketing Department. ‘I would suggest,’ he wrote, ‘that you let me see a draft of your article in due course to develop your request further at this stage.’ If that is a fair example of how senior officers at the bank express themselves, Barclays is in trouble.
When I tell people that I am writing about my aunt, I mean that I am filling in forms about her. The number of times during the last six months that I have had to deny that she is pregnant is remarkable. And there is something depressing at having to enter the words ‘Not Applicable’ on page after page of questions. It eventually feels as if I am denying the peculiar validity of my aunt’s life, providing evidence of things missed. People in the agencies and departments I have spoken and written to were invariably patient and kind, but I came to feel like someone needing assistance over an obstacle course. The system designed to help the old and ill, though inadequate, has many virtues, but it has grown too complicated. True efficiency is maximum simplicity. I could understand why the massive questionnaires were needed. I could not understand why, every time my aunt’s ‘circumstances’ changed – when she went into hospital or a nursing home – all the forms (including those to be filled in by widows) had to be sent to me again, and I was obliged to go through the entire interrogation once more. Surely, I thought, it would be better for me to write a letter and for them to amend a document. But my letters are not compatible with their computers. If I want to speak about my aunt to the Social Services I must use her number, not her name.
Last autumn everything changed again and after another crisis we moved her permanently into a nursing home. It does not matter where she is any more, providing she is well looked after, because she can no longer recognise where she is. The doctor is pleased; Jean and Rita visit her and my aunt sometimes tells them of her recent trips to Ascot and Wimbledon.
Did she ever go to such places? Certainly not while I knew her at Maidenhead. But going through her flat I came across some old albums of photographs. There is my father looking rather lost as a child and then trying to look sophisticated in his teens. There are many dogs photographed with their names all noted in the captions. The human beings are less scrupulously identified, but there is no mistaking my aunt. Her smile shines out with astonishing vividness as she sits on a horse at Maidenhead, or on the beach at Monte Carlo, or at a dinner party in London. This is how she was from the early Twenties to the mid-Thirties, the aunt I never knew but whom I glimpsed obliquely reading Vogue and the Tatler, or hurrying down to the Plaza and Rialto cinemas to see musicals and romantic comedies.
In financial terms my family has been distinguished by its spectacular downward mobility. My father’s possessions at his death fetched less than £50, and my aunt’s bank account contains significantly less than £3000. It is my job to see that she receives the help to which she is entitled. As I interpret it, the law has said she needs £128.65 to live on each week (£46.50 for living expenses, £25.15 which is due to everyone over 80 and £57 towards the cost of where she lives). She has had rather less than half of this coming in, and the difference is made up from Income Support.
But the cost of the nursing home is approximately three times what the law says she needs to live on. The Social Services cannot pay any of this because my aunt still owns her flat. But they can advance part of these expenses until I succeed in selling the flat, which should release about £50,000. From that sum I will repay the Social Services and continue paying the nursing home. Once that capital is sufficiently depleted the Social Services will step in and pay up to a maximum of £340 a week.
My aunt always voted Conservative because her father did so. She believed her father could do no wrong – rather like the Queen Mother. In fact he was a devastating optimist – a blend between Mr Micawber and Dr Pangloss. He voted on the principle of something turning up in this best of worlds. I do not know how the lives of my father and my aunt would have affected him. He was a kind-hearted man and hated bad news. He would probably have squeezed some drops of comfort from the Chancellor’s recent Budget. My aunt’s pension will go up from £58.85 to £61.15 in April, the month she reaches her 95th year. The Social Services will start to make a modest contribution to her long-term care when her capital descends below £16,000 (instead of £8000) and will pay more once she has less than £10,000 (instead of £3000). These fractional improvements will help to meet the increase in nursing costs.
My aunt used to worry about money. Now she has left all that behind and escaped to a world of her imagination. It seems a happy place. When I go to the nursing home I feel as if I have stepped onto the set of Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade. Someone rushes forward and cries out: my aunt looks up then gives that dazzling smile I recognise from the photographs, as if she is indeed in the best of all possible worlds.