Obituary: Dorothy White

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The Independent Culture
DOROTHY WHITE never set out to found the Relatives Association. After she retired from the Civil Service in 1979, she became involved in the support of her mother, who in due course needed a nursing home. This direct experience of long- term care highlighted the stresses placed on relatives; and her subsequent campaigning to improve the provision of care for the elderly and their families led to the establishment of the Relatives Association in 1992, now a national charity.

After an initial poor experience, White identified a good home for her mother, but even there recognised the difficulty of remaining closely involved with her mother's life. Many relatives and friends in this situation blame themselves for failing. White in contrast realised that, if she experienced problems, others must too; indeed for many the challenges would be much greater. Information and support were needed.

Furthermore, she recognised that the 500,000 residents of homes and their visitors were an important voice which should be mobilised to help plan long-term care. It was this group of people who really knew what was needed - many policy-makers and administrators were 40 years younger than care- home residents and did not see the world from the same perspective. Although White was keen to build partnership between family, friends and the care staff, she recognised that this was insufficient for some very poor homes. The only sure way to root out abuse was to link "the eyes and ears" of the visitors in every home with a strong inspectorate.

White had first hoped to persuade a number of existing voluntary organisations connected with the elderly to broaden their remit to address the needs of relatives too. None offered to do so but one, Counsel and Care, provided her with a base from which to launch a new mutual aid organisation.

White then worked six long days a week, answering the telephone to anxious relatives, developing the organisation, fund-raising. In 1992 the Relatives Association was formally launched at the House of Commons.

By 1993 the association was independent, with its own charitable status. By 1994 White had raised enough money to employ a director. Later, this post was supplemented by an advice worker and local development staff, and an African Caribbean project followed. Recently Relatives Associations have been established for Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as 28 local groups in England.

The association continues to function largely on voluntary effort, and White herself remained actively involved in the day-to-day work, in the chair until 1996 and then as Founder President. She also continued to assist on the Helpline; her empathy, knowledge and determination was of enormous value to callers. This involvement was fundamental to White's approach. She did not feel happy on the creative policy side without grounding decisions in real life.

Born Dorothy Gerrish in Esher, Surrey, in 1924, she attended St Swithun's School in Winchester before reading Economics at the London School of Economics, at that time evacuated to Cambridge. Her prime sphere of interest throughout her life was social policy and administration, a world into which she was swept in 1945, the year she married John White, when "called up" from LSE to the Ministry of Health. She worked first in the team that brought in the National Health Service under Aneurin Bevan, the Health Minister, and then on the National Assistance Act, and from 1951 on maternity and child welfare.

After the birth of her third son in 1958 Dorothy White temporarily left the Civil Service and gained experience in youth work, teaching and lecturing on management. In 1966 she was asked to return and joined the Department of Education and Science, where she worked on health reorganisation and special education. She took early retirement in 1979, and became a management consultant.

Meanwhile, in addition to her having a growing family and a full-time job, White's activities in the voluntary sector expanded. She was extensively involved in Barnet Voluntary Service Council and in 1992 was appointed OBE for her work there. She had also begun active involvement with Network Housing Association, one of the biggest housing associations in the country - a commitment she always retained.

White remained determined to help improve the world even as her health failed. In her last month she was still speaking at meetings and gave evidence to the staff of the Royal Commission on Long Term Care. She had hoped to chair the Relatives Association Annual Conference on 9 November; unable to do so due to chemotherapy treatment, she taped a message saying she hoped to be there in years to come.

She also reminded people that safeguarding the NHS was the responsibility of everyone and argued that it needed to adapt to the growing numbers of older people who so desperately require its services. She felt that the present time offered a "window of opportunity" which must be seized to "review the ethics and structure of the health services for older people".

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Dorothy White had an indomitable spirit, writes Baroness Nicholson, and a passionate sense of justice for lonely, elderly people. She mobilised her extensive network of friends and neighbours to fight the dismal impact on family links of prolonged stays by elderly frail men and women in Britain's retirement and nursing homes.

I was proud to be a member of her clan. Small at first but now widespread, the Relatives Association now puts policy proposals and implements in practical ways Dorothy's own vision for Britain's elderly, secure and comfortable in their declining years with family ties enhances and not dislocated.

Her enchanting personality was matched by a lifetime of hard work. Many thousands of elderly people have already benefited from her energy and wisdom and thousands will in the future.

Dorothy Marian Gerrish, public servant; born Esher, Surrey 13 October 1924; OBE 1992; married 1945 John White (three sons); died London 26 November 1998.

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