Suzanne knew that selling her mum’s house to pay care home fees was always going to be sad. But going through her parents’ belongings brought back the strong bond she’d had with them both before dementia came along.
'The rooms will look bigger without furniture,' said the estate agent, so getting rid of beds, wardrobes, sofas and armchairs was what we did first when selling mum’s house.
The Parker Knowles 3-piece suite was snapped up by our aunt, who promised to keep mum’s posh sofa in the family. Mum and dad’s ‘his and hers’ old-fashioned wardrobes and chest of drawers went to a charity that upcycles furniture. And so, item by item, we tried to be good citizens and keep stuff from landfill. We put a few bits on eBay to try and get quick cash towards care home fees.
'We were shocked at how quickly it happened'
My sister and I have had to sell the house rapidly, having been turned down for a loan for care home fees from the local council (a deferred payment agreement).
Mum, who is living with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, moved into a care home last summer and that’s when we applied for the loan. We knew we’d have to sell the house but we were shocked at how quickly it had to happen.
From what we’d read about deferred payment agreements, we believed they were automatic. We had somehow understood that if your parent’s in a care home and their bank account dips below a certain amount, that you were entitled to some state help, albeit a loan. We were wrong.
The council disagreed that mum should be in a care home and refused to loan us a penny.
I wrote a long letter spelling out why we felt mum was no longer safe in her own home – her various falls, the way mum was taking a double dose of pills that you should never take an overdose of, mum’s spiralling anxiety and her frequent visits to the hospital because of that anxiety. We had become a serial user of A&E and we couldn’t break the cycle.
I also explained to the council the steps we’d taken previously over the years to keep mum in her own home – gadgets, home adjustments, daily carers, meal on wheels, online deliveries and a weekly rota for visitors.
But to the council, it was our word against theirs. They did not want to believe us. Yes, the council did come round to look at mum’s needs but the assessors had a checklist: can mum wash and dress herself? Does mum eat well? The checklist did not ask: Are you regularly taking an overdose of your tablets? Are you regularly ringing 999 and ending up in A&E?
Moving mum into a care home
So finally, we gave up on getting help from an uninterested council. We took a gamble to try and improve mum’s mental wellbeing and it has worked out better than we ever imagined it could.
Over the summer we took mum to see a couple of care homes. She liked the gardens and upbeat atmosphere at one of them.
And after a week where mum rang 999 on 3 days in a row, she finally agreed to try one of them. And it was a relief for us, her daughters.
Nudging mum into a care home was a hard, hard thing to do: mum loved her garden with its fuchsias and foxgloves, the greenfinches on the bird feeder and blackbirds pecking on the lawn, the neighbour’s cat that she always tut-tutted.
Now our mum’s really thriving in the care home – she has a better social life than we do and has sweet people around her night and day.
There have been no more visits to A&E. The caring staff are doing a much better job than my sister and me. And that’s what we have to hang on to as we surf the weak UK house market this winter.
Clearing out mum and dad's house
And so, after the furniture, paper was the next big thing to deal with. It felt like Mum and dad hung on to every single receipt, bank statement and hospital appointment reminder. Dad was meticulous and in those non-digital decades, I guess you kept everything just in case.
There were boxes of papers in the loft and concertina files of papers in cupboards, upstairs and downstairs. It was overwhelming because you can’t just toss the lot into a bin liner - you need to go through it to make sure you don’t miss something valuable, like the deeds of the house you’re selling.
Sorting through Dad's belongings brings back memories
Going through it took time. Things leapt out at me. A local newspaper article from the ‘70s tells readers about Dad and his hobby, collecting Victoriana.
Every Saturday, in a field in Kent, dad went digging through layers of burnt ash at an old rubbish dump for glass lemonade bottles (‘Codd’ bottles) and ink bottles. He lugged them home to clean them back up to scratch.
The Victorian dump was full of these green and blue glass treasures - Dad sold them in bulk to buyers who flew in from Canada and the US, taking their pick from 50 or so bottles laid out on mum’s dining room table.
I was thrilled to find a manuscript of a book Dad wrote ‘Victorian Vessels’. It told would-be collectors how to scout for a Victorian dump to dig: 'Search for elderberry trees and stinging nettles as those two things and ash dumps go together.' Dad advised people, when seeking permission to dig the land, to 'avoid farmers’ mealtimes, milking times and harvest times (I should know – I’m a farmer’s son)'.
The chapters were hand-written in his unmistakeable squiggly handwriting that always takes a fair bit of deciphering. The book was never published but what an achievement for someone who left school at 14.
Another newspaper article, this time framed: ‘Pupil power: children sign petition to save caretaker’ reminds me how principled Dad was. He was a school caretaker in the ‘70s, fighting cuts to save colleagues’ jobs. He took pride in keeping the school gleaming and used to say you could eat your school dinner off his floors. (We never tried it!)
A tiny building society book (The Leek and Westbourne) records the 11 pounds 5 shillings and sixpence Dad and Mum paid monthly toward a mortgage. The book’s dated 1969, when Dad worked as a railwayman, and the mortgage is for the house we’re selling now to pay mum’s care home fees.
Dipping into Dad’s belongings like this, in the house I was born in, has helped me re-remember Dad, who passed away in 2013 from the complications of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
At the very end, Dad had stopped eating. He was skin and bone, hooked up to a drip in a care home, in and out of consciousness.
And this upsetting image has, for the last 6 years, been blotting out all other images of who Dad was. And with this house clearance, sad and swift as it is, I’ve been piecing Dad back together again, reconstructing Dad.
And now the house, emptied of furniture, paper and Victoriana, no pictures on the walls – it’s been emptied of mum and dad… at least it makes it easier to sell an empty shell now I’ve got my memories back.
Fix Dementia Care
People affected by dementia typically spend £100,000 on their own care due to a system that is unfair, unsustainable and in need of an urgent overhaul.
We want to hold the Government to account and ensure they Fix Dementia Care for good.