Family's financial nightmare after Alzheimer's struck

BRIDGET DENCH never imagined that caring for her mother, Enid Fisher, 79, could become a financial nightmare. Even when she developed Alzheimer's disease, Mrs Dench, 43, assumed her savings of more than pounds 30,000 would easily pay for nursing care, writes Marianne Macdonald.

Problems started when Mrs Fisher became ill in 1988, 18 years after the death of her husband. During her widowhood she had lived in a terraced house in Enfield enjoying trips to Australia and an independent lifestyle. But Alzheimer's left her unable to speak and unaware of her surroundings, so Mrs Dench brought her to live in Potters Bar with her husband Paul, 44, and two children. 'We managed a couple of years with her at home, but it got to the stage where I couldn't cope. With Alzheimer's disease, people wander around at all hours of the day or night and get into difficulties,' Mrs Dench said. 'We had to put her into a home for her own safety.'

In October 1989 Mrs Fisher went into a pounds 395-a-week residential home in Potters Bar. 'It was beautiful - the price was comparative with a lot of others at the time. But it had just opened and it soon put its fees up quite considerably. That ate into her capital,' Mrs Dench said.

By last summer Mrs Fisher's savings had dwindled to pounds 15,000; her daughter was starting to panic. Pressure increased when the home said her mother's condition was deteriorating and she would have to go to a nursing home. Mrs Fisher had savings of pounds 12,000 in May, when she moved to Hertford into the cheapest nursing home her daughter could find, at pounds 350 a week.

By now Mrs Dench and her brother were facing the realisation they would have to pay pounds 35 a week each - possibly for years - to make up the shortfall between state support, which is limited to pounds 280 a week for nursing home fees outside Greater London, and the actual cost of the home.

As a housewife Mrs Dench earned nothing and, although her husband generally made pounds 30,000 a year, he had also had periods of unemployment as a freelance structural engineer. 'We started to make inquiries about what we could do financially,' Mrs Dench said. 'But all we got were blase comments that when my mother's savings went below pounds 8,000 we would get help from the state. But there was still going to be a gap.'

In the event, Mrs Fisher suddenly died five weeks ago of pneumonia. The family admits it was a relief. 'To get down to brass tacks, it ended the burden financially,' her daughter said. But she remains angry. 'I expected my mother to grow old with dignity. It was bad enough having to put her in a home. But the welfare state is supposed to look after you from cradle to grave and if she had lived much longer it simply wouldn't have.'

The names in this article have been changed.