Leaving a home for a home

When Simon Parkin's grandfather moved into a nursing home, his grandmother was left alone in her cold house. Who has it worse, he wonders?

 

Every summer holiday I’d lay awake on the narrow bed and listen to the only other piece of furniture in the room – the hulking wardrobe, as the beetles dined. This was the nightly ritual at my grandparents’ cottage, where the insects would feast en masse during the dark, tapping their mandibles loud against the wood till they finally stilled, replete at dawn. It was the closest I came not to adolescent rage but to adolescent madness: whipping from my bed, torching the light and poring, murderously over the bedroom furniture for something, anything to obliterate under thumb.

Nowadays the diners are gone, dispossessed by decay perhaps, as the wardrobe’s grain grumbled past its sell-by years ago. The house is all decline, its ceilings fissure-scrawl maps, its walls threaded by varicose veins of damp. It’s been this way since I can remember – close to three decades - but it never really seemed to matter very much before. The house was held together by warmth and love.

The beetles aren’t the only evictees. My grandfather departed shortly before Christmas, siren-wailed into a local hospital’s waiting bed where the staff mended what they could before making the grim pronouncement: he could not return home. His care was too much for my wearied grandmother to provide; he would need to find a new place to live.

The benefit of terminal illness – and it’s a grim benefit, but a benefit nonetheless – is the schedule it brings. Sure, the sentence is elastic: they might give you two months and you cling on for twelve, or two weeks and you’re wilted and gone in a day; but terminal illness and its prognosis sets the pace of one’s decay.

Mere old age - the sort of old age my grandparents are suffering - has none of that. It’s all unwelcome surprise, slo-mo shock horror. Death grows in us like a baby, its presence felt more each year, its strengthening kicks acting as reminders of our inexorable decline. But death’s final birth remains, for many, unannounced. It arrives to crown old age when we’re least expecting.

This is the problem for the elderly couple separated by unsynchronised degeneration. One remains in The Home, healthy but lonely, clinging to the household debris of memories. The other is sent to A Home, cared for but lonely, sitting in some medicinal chair facing a window on to a road that winds back to the old house and its memories.

Who is worse off in the arrangement? The left-behind, with her uneasy freedom and schedules that swivel around the visiting hour appointment, or the intrepid handicapped, deafened with drugs and the aggressive scent of industrial-scale linen-washing? He too awaits the visiting hour, but with a sapless tongue, his time now measured by the rising yellowy-tide in the catheter bag and the unwavering TV schedule.

“I’m not going yet,” my grandmother says, defiantly, all weekend as I stay with her. “There’s too much to do around this place anyway. And I’m certainly staying put till I’ve drunk all of the homemade wine.” We both laugh, long and eagerly – more than the joke deserves, but less than we need to.

Over our weekend together this becomes our battle cry of united defiance whenever a reason for moving out reveals itself. “Not yet!” she says. “Not yet!” I echo.

But she is preparing. She’s been preparing for years now, asking my brother and me to point out the household objects we’d like to inherit when the day comes. She would stick Post-It notes to these items’ bases with the relevant sibling’s initial drawn on in marker pen. I always saw this as a morbid request, and felt greedy and uncomfortable in answering her. But she was just preparing, trying to take care of things; being a good grandmother.

“I’m worried that he’s not eating enough,” she says, later. “Maybe I should move in to ensure he’s getting enough food?”

I point out that she is paying an extortionate amount for her husband to stay in The Home’s care and that it's the staff’s responsibility to ensure he is putting enough away. “Yes,” she says. “Yes you’re right. I’ll get your father to have a word with the staff.”

“That’s the spirit!” I say.

“Not yet!” She smiles, ruefully.

The government has been trying to improve the lot of our ageing population of late, or at least trying to appear to try to improve their lot. For many, the final years of life consume everything that was built up beforehand, at least in financial and material terms.  Last month the coalition committed to fund any care that an individual might require over £75,000 (a full £40,000 more than economist Andrew Dilnot recommended in his review). That, of course, doesn’t go towards the cost of care in a new home, only treatment. Regardless, a financial solution can only ever be a partial solution. There are deeper, wider factors for any couple facing a care home, ones that grow yet wider if the couple in question cannot move together – factors to do with guilt, loyalty and the incomprehensible pain of a separation that was not asked for.

I have my own cause for worry too. The house (fissured, varicosed) is also close to freezing. My grandparents were born pre-war and, like many farmers of their generation, live as if rationing was still in angry effect. Heat is doled out from the electric fire in momentary burps, before the ‘off’ switch is thriftily flicked and yet another woollen cardigan slipped into.

“You eat too quickly,” she admonishes, often.

To be this cold inside a home is unsettling for the contemporary human, who reasonably expects walls and rugs to offer adequate shelter from the cruel elements. I take two hot water bottles to bed and watch as steam rises, not just from my breath, but also the ambient heat of my fingers. She’s not ready to move out yet, psychologically but also physically. And yet, this is no place for an elderly lady to decline, drawn smaller by the temperature, diminished by the absence of warmth and love.

Sleep is death’s brother. But in this sort of cold, they’re twins. There’s no longer even the insect’s tap to act as a heartbeat indication of life any more, the questing micro-jaws whose nibbles and scrapes can keep a man warm through mere irritation. All that’s left is the air of cold immobility that precedes decay. And the questions - those unanswerable questions.

My grandmother wakes me first thing with a rap at the door. She’s still wearing the headscarf she slept in, tightly wrapped and tied beneath her chin. She’s eager for me to hit the road, grateful for my company and the various errands I helped her with, but ready for me to be on my way now. The new day has brought with it fresh challenges and to-dos which I am not to be a part of and, moreover, she’s worried she’s keeping me from my own familial responsibilities. This is the curse of the kindly matriarch left behind: managing everybody else. “Come on,” she says. “Time for you to get home.”

We lock eyes and I smile.

“Not yet!” I say. “Not yet.”

 

A cottage. Flickr/markhillary, used under a Creative Commons licence.
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls.

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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