Lost Souls

Published in The Guardian, Weds 17 Feb 1999

Rebecca Leathlean wanted a decent home for her ailing mother. Mrs Thatcher didn’t help

Just before Christmas last year I was told that my mother, aged 74 and mentally ill, was to be made homeless. The number of residents at the private care home where she lived had fallen from 19 to just five following dwindling referrals from social services. My mother and four other frail, confused residents aged between 74 and 98 were to find new accommodation by December 28.

During her 19 years in care, my mother was buffeted by the forces of social policy. In the early 1980s she was moved out of a large NHS asylum in Margaret Thatcher’s drive to privatise the care system. In the unregulated free-for-all that followed, my mother suffered shoddy care in a succession of substandard homes before the adequate one we finally found for her was taken over by a family which, it later transpired, had employed staff with criminal convictions for assault.

The next home – the first good one – was closed down just one year after Mum moved in: the council turned it into flats. Finally, we found James House, a beautiful old home on the edge of Dartmoor run by enlightened managers and caring staff. This wonderful place was her home for eight years, but then the whole sorry saga started again. This time the upheaval was due to the care-in-the-community policy, under which state funding for care is cash-limited and controlled by local authorities. There is no longer enough to fund private as well as state homes. Private managers are going bankrupt – unable even to sell their businesses as, in the current climate, nobody will buy them. Elderly people are being forced to move and many care staff are being made homeless and redundant.

On December 23 I travelled from London to Devon to see the new home that had been chosen for my mother. Sadly, I noted the identical chairs lined up around the walls, the televisions playing loudly in communal rooms. On the positive side, I was glad to meet kind staff, and relieved the new place was clean, apparently efficient and less than a mile from the old one. Then I paid a last visit to James House. The big old building was almost deserted. Five residents wandered like lost souls through empty rooms. I watched my mother curled up on her favourite sofa; a carer who had been with her throughout her years there gently stroked her hair as she passed. Later, Mum walked around a little, touching a chair, a picture, a shelf. “She always touches the same things,” said the carer. It pained me to think how Mum would feel in a strange house, with no familiar people or objects.

After she arrived, I was assured, by both phone and two letters, that she was absolutely fine, (“settling in very well please don’t worry”). Relieved, I postponed my first visit and took a planned week’s holiday and returned on January 26. When I phoned to see how Mum was, and to arrange a visit for the weekend, I was told she was dangerously ill. I went down the next morning – and arrived two hours after she died. Like many others this winter, Mum fell victim to a chest infection. The official cause of death was broncho-pneumonia. The next day, the doctor told me she’d had a minor flu attack early in January. Nobody seemed very surprised that Mum wasn’t the only one of the homeless five to have died – another old woman from James House died just before her. Both had survived less than a month after the move.

My mother was buried last week in a tiny churchyard on the edge of the moor she had loved so much as a young woman. Her body was laid to rest close to her parents’ grave, which is blooming with spring flowers Mum herself planted nearly 40 years ago. The funeral was one of celebration, of a woman of great depth, intelligence, creativity and affection; a loving, joyful spirit, free again.


The royal commission on long-term care reports early next month, with a list of recommendations for the welfare of the elderly in care. To these I would add this plea: stop throwing old people out of their residential homes at a time of life when they are at their weakest and most vulnerable.

The people of James House and all the other homes being closed to save money may seem “no more” than old, mentally-ill bodies of little consequence; but each in their time was a vibrant, vital individual – they still have feelings and they still matter. Many have suffered hugely. Surely they deserve to end their days in peace and security – regardless of the cost.

•The Relatives & Residents Association provides advice to families with relatives in long-term care.

Share this:

Be the first to like this.