Private Lives: A desperate plight for old and young

Caring for an elderly relative is no easy task, and many find the strain too great. By Jack O'Sullivan

MARY STANSBIE, 78, had been dead in her bed for up to three weeks when her body was discovered by a district nurse. "Help me" and "No help" were scrawled on her bedroom walls.

Her case sounds like a tragic account of an elderly person dying alone, bereft of friends or relatives. You imagine her on her own in a high-rise flat, her absence unnoticed. Yet Mrs Stansbie died in her family home in Smethwick, West Midlands. She lived there with her daughter and two granddaughters. Apparently, they had not realised she was dead.

Put so bluntly, the story seems as bizarre as it is sad, a tale of extraordinary suffering rather than a comment on everyday life. What happened to the family ties that provide comfort in people's final days?

Yet the inquest last week into her death highlighted common problems when elderly people seek sanctuary with their families. Ms Stansbie suffered from dementia. Her daughter said she often took to her room for weeks, armed with biscuits and other food. The breakdown in relationships which took place in this instance is not unusual.

Take Thomas, from Yorkshire, as an example. He had to give up his job to look after his elderly mother, who was paralysed and unable to speak. So she was totally dependent, but able to give him little feedback for his efforts. He had no break for four years. "He rang to say that he had hit his mum out of sheer frustration," recalls Jill Harrison, who runs the Carers' Helpline. "He had hit her quite badly, and felt dreadful when he rang us. He was worried about how far he would take it."

Resentment can poison life with a vulnerable old person. Whereas, in the past, daughters - who still do most of the work - might have been at home in any case, these days looking after an elderly relative requires a dramatic change in lifestyle. Suddenly, the hospital rings to say that your mother is being discharged, and she cannot manage at home. She needs to stay with you. Yet she could be a person for whom you never felt much affection.

Ms Harrison describes a caller who had been abroad for years, and was told by social services that her mother needed residential care. "Since her mother lived alone, the house would be sold to pay the fees. But that was money the daughter had been hoping would revive her business abroad. So she returned to Britain to look after her mother, and became very resentful. She told her mother, who had had a stroke, that she did not intend to be around all the time; if she had a fall, then tough."

That might sound like an uncaring statement. Yet those who look after old people grow desperate. "Looking after someone can include never getting a good night's sleep, and being on call 24 hours a day, every day," says Denise Malcolm, of the Carers' Association. "You may never be able to take a holiday. It can be impossible to attend family events such as weddings because there is no one to look after Mum. Couples may also not agree about an elderly person coming to live with them. A woman may be keen to look after her own mum and dad, but not her partner's stepfather.

"There can be a serious money problem," says Jill Harrison. "A carer will say to us, `I have to live on pounds 38.70 a week invalid care allowance, yet Mum has a good pension from Dad and an attendance allowance, but will not give me more than pounds 10 a week for food. I'm getting into debt.' We can't condone the misuse of elderly people's benefits, but it does happen. Money can get very tight."

Ginny Jenkins, director of Action on Elder Abuse, encounters some of the worst cases. She leafs through a log of calls to the charity's helpline. "Here is a case of an 80-year-old mother who provided a home for her alcoholic daughter in return for being looked after. The daughter had been on a drinking binge, wasn't feeding the mother, and wouldn't let anyone into the flat."

Professionals warn against painting a picture of widespread neglect, although there is little research to establish its real prevalence. The experts distinguish between the rare sadistic types, who mistreat elderly relatives because of personality problems, and the majority of abusers, whose behaviour is a reaction to stress.

There are potential legal remedies. The Government is considering introducing protective legislation for vulnerable adults. The 1998 Family Act could also be activated to protect old people. Designed to deal with domestic violence, it allows a perpetrator to be excluded from a property even if he or she owns it.

However, in the main the answer lies in providing better support for those who do an extraordinary task. If you are desperate, the helplines all say, walk away before you do something dreadful. Any carer can ask social services to assess their ability and resources to do the job - a job that carries many of the burdens of child care, with few of the rewards.

The Carers' Line is 0345 573369; The Action on Elder Abuse helpline is 0800 731 4141

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada