Dear Virginia, I've employed a lovely woman to clean and iron for the family. She's worked for us for 15 years. Now she's 68 and has become so arthritic that unfortunately she has to retire. Normally, I pay her 30 a week, and I know losing the money will be a terrible blow for her. I don't have any legal responsibilities towards her, but she's been a real boon. Do you think I ought to go on paying her something? And for how long? I'm in such a muddle. Yours sincerely, Diana

First of all, it's admirable that you even consider doing anything for this woman now she's in a position where she has to leave. Most people would simply bung her 50 quid and say goodbye. But you, Diana, are not most people, and the fact that you even consider the idea of continuing to pay her not only implies you are kindly and dutiful but, also, quite well off.

If that's the case, and it won't harm you to cough up, say, a tenner a week for the rest of her life, then it would be a nice gesture. You could be quite open about it and say it's because she's been invaluable, and she mustn't think of it as charity but more a pension because she's been indispensable to you. You could jiggle this figure how you liked 5 a week? 30 a month? But bear in mind that, once you start, morally you'll be obliged to shell out until she dies or until social services start to care for her.

Another way of playing it might be to give her hefty Christmas and birthday presents for the rest of her life I'm talking of 250 a whack, rather than 20 book tokens.

But it seems to me that the best thing would be to dream up some kind of task that she can perform it doesn't really matter how small and pay her over-the-top for doing it. That way she will feel she is still contributing something and not living on charity. You might take her round sheets and pillowcases to iron things that don't have too many fiddly bits. Take it to her home, so she can do it in her own time and on a good day,

Is she good at cooking? Could you ask her to make you a casserole every week so that you're spared the effort of cooking or getting a takeaway? When you're on holiday could she come round and water the plants? Could she pick up a child from school one day a week? I know these are rather contrived ideas, but it's quite nice to feel that you're getting something for your money, however tiny, and would also keep her pride intact.

Another thought would be to find out where she worked before she came to you. Are there any other grateful ex-employers around who you could put pressure on to contribute to the fund? Just a yearly contribution of 50 a year from a couple of them would make a huge difference. Could you justify a sum to her as an act of charity? You could always cancel a direct debit to a charity and transfer it, as it were, to the charity you'll be doing at home.

You don't have to go mad. And clearly if she's got an earning and generous family who could support her, you need only make a small regular contribution.

I can't say I'm the most generous person in the world, but whenever I do give anything away, grinding my teeth in a Scottish way as I do, my native meanness always lurking around somewhere making every gift delivered with a grain of grudgingness, I try to remember that I or my family will hopefully one day get it back from someone else when we are on our uppers.

Readers say

Keep her on

I feel really sorry for the lady and I am sure that it is incredibly difficult for you to stop employing her. I am a foreign student and used to live with an English family who also employed a fantastic couple in their eighties who cleaned the house and ironed the clothes. It came to light that our lovely ironing lady had arthritis, which made her life incredibly difficult. We discussed the matter with my host lady and we decided that she could come and do as little or as much as she could manage, because that kept her going. It still does. My host lady employs someone else to do the majority of the work. If you can afford to pay that lady as you did and tell her do as much as she is able, I am sure you will help her greatly.

Edit Biro, London SW15

You owe her nothing

You can't pay her. How can you pay her for nothing? Do you give your kids and husband 30 a week? No!

As much of a help as she has been, she is not your financial responsibility, and I am sure she will understand this.

Ian Laird, Birkenhead, Wirral

Do it by the book

When I moved house, I discovered that my cleaner had been looking forward to her retirement, and couldn't wait for me to go! I gave her the proper amount of redundancy and holiday pay. You can find out how to do this at www.berr.gov. uk/employment. Your lady would merit 1.5 weeks' pay for each year of employment with you. You could also give her holiday pay, which is 4.8 weeks. And a leaving present a voucher or a cheque. You can't do more than that, unless you have so much disposable income that 30 a week wouldn't be missed but she might find that patronising.

F Skelton, Sheffield

Help her adjust

May be your super helper could work for a week or two alongside the new cleaner to break her in to the family likes and dislikes. Then you could:

1. Pay her a bonus/long service award/ holiday pay/ loyalty sum or whatever you want to call it of around 200 at a little family party for her.

2. Pay her to house-watch when you go on holiday.

3. Pay her to wait in for deliveries, parcels etc.

4. Ask her to keep the spare key to your house.

5. Remember her at her birthday and Christmas with store vouchers.

6. Keep her involved with family news and gossip.

Get information from Citizens Advice Bureau, Age Concern, Help the Aged, etc, so you can tactfully help this dear lady to claim benefits.This could be ongoing as the benefit system changes.

Jane Baker, Hassocks, West Sussex

Give a lump sum

Don't carry on paying her every week. She may be offended that you view her as a charity case. And you do not know your own financial situation in the future: she could come to rely on the extra 30 when you can no longer afford it. Lastly, you may come to resent paying out something for nothing particularly as you may be also paying a new cleaner, too.

A far better idea would be to give your cleaner a "golden handshake" for whatever amount you think is reasonable.

Linda Acaster, Leicester

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