Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Alzheimers and the insurance man

I have not personally had any dealings with sufferers of Alzheimer's. Nobody in my family has ever contracted this terrible disease nor any personal friends that I am aware of. So I am not writing this post with any degree of expertise or like I said experience, but I have come into contact with people who have been affected by it. On two separate occasions and both work related. I will start with my most recent engagement, which came about through my job and hobby as a gardener. (Yes I am not only a brilliant writer, I also cut lawns!)
Now firstly, may I add that I do tend to inject humour into most of my ramblings, but assure you that I am not being flippant in any way, it is just the way I am and I mean no offence or bad taste what so ever. So I would just like to apologise beforehand if I say something untoward.
Anyway in my capacity as a gardener, alot of my customers are elderly, which I always find quite sad in itself. Most of them are very proud of their gardens, have tended them for years and because of age or illness or forms of incapacitation, cannot do now what they have done most of their lives. The look of helplessness and frustration on their faces can be most upsetting. Before I tar every geriatric with the same brush, may I add that I do have 3 customers who are well into their nineties and are still very able bodied and possess wit as sharp as a tack, so I hope you can see that I am not generalising here.
My first story centres on a client called Janet, who is not elderly at all. She is in her mid-fifties and works as a school-teacher. She has a very small garden and rings me maybe twice a year to come and basically give her tiny patch a spring/autumn cut-back. In my role as a garden tidier, it is written in the handbook that I must drink copious amounts of tea and chomp on as many biscuits as is physically possible. Not my rules, it is clearly written in black and white in the 'Gardeners Handbook' by Ivor Mower, page 8, chapter 3, paragraph 4, subsection 2.
So when Janet brought out said tray with tea and biscuit items a plenty, I had to stop and partake. Including the usual passing of the time via meaningless conversation, which included the weather, (we are so English) work related topics, how well the garden looks and the price of bread. (it's shocking).
During our workman/customer ramblings we touched on the subject of families, to which Janet mentioned that her mother had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Now as I have gotten older, I have become the typical male, that thinks every time I get an ache or a pain anywhere about my person, I am due to keel over, be struck down by an incurable or rush to the nearest solicitors (spit), to make out my last will and testament. So when she mentioned that her mother had suddenly been affected by severe memory loss. My ears pricked up and I tried to remember everything that had happened to me during my life, becoming increasingly more worried when I could not remember anything before last Wednesday.
Now on a more serious note, Janet's mother lived in Dorset, a round trip of approximately 6 hours every weekend, which was taking its toll on the poor woman. She had no other family and the sole responsibility of care, had suddenly been thrust upon her. She had enlisted the help of local social services to go into her mother's house three times a day to make sure she was ok, eating and taking care of herself. Just because she had suddenly been struck down by Alzheimer's, it didn't ultimately mean that she had become an invalid overnight. On the contrary, the woman still kept a nice clean home, looked after herself and even still maintained her own garden. The worrying aspect of it all according to Janet, was the short term memory loss which occurred on a daily basis. Things like, leaving saucepans on gas rings, putting objects in the wrong place, example being, she would fold towels and tea towels and place them in the oven. Newspapers piled up in the fridge. Television remote control found in the garden. The next problem which occurred only days later was the confusion with money. Too much and not enough. After the window cleaner had cleaned the windows, he was offered £100 for his trouble in £20 notes. Luckily he had been a family friend for many years and after declining the offer, got straight on the phone to Janet to report the incident. The poor woman had also had a conversation on the phone with Janet and was convinced that her house was being sold from under her and that an offer of £200 would be fair and she wouldn't accept a penny less. In context farcical and sadly comical examples, but the real hurt came when she began to forget members of her own family.
The previous weekend Janet had gone to see her mother as usual and arrived around lunchtime. She let herself in and looked around the house. There was no sign of the old woman. She searched every room and took a saucepan, which had been boiling off the stove; incident number one. She wandered out to the garden and looked around. Walking down the path she headed for the potting shed at the bottom of the garden. The door was slightly open. Peering inside she was alarmed to see her mother sitting in her nightdress on an old stool. The old woman looked at her vacantly.
"I'm not coming out," she said indignantly. "not 'til Graham gets home."
Graham was Janet's late father. He had been dead over 20 years. Janet stood in silence for a second. The shock leaving her numb.
She started talking to her mother in a soothing manner and managed to walk her back to the house. Janet sat down with her and they talked. Her long term memory was fine, she recalled her childhood, brothers, sisters and her life with Janet's father, but yesterday was a blur. She eventually recognised her daughter but according to Janet, a few minutes out of her sight and she was forgotten once more.
I found this to be an incredibly sad story and felt deep sympathy for Janet. She is the person who is having to cope with her mother's illness, more so in a way than her mother is. Physically the old woman is fine, apart from thinking it's 1950. The woman is not a danger to anyone else, only to herself. She needs constant care in case she forgets things, boiling pans, naked flames. It is often said not to grieve for the ones who are gone, but to grieve for the ones who are left. I can see the relevance in this statement now.
This was some weeks ago and I have not spoken to Janet since and so I don't know what her next course of action was. She did mention to me at the time, that a nursing home seemed to be the only option and I would hazard a guess that was the route she took. I believe that medical solutions are limited in the case of Alzheimer's and very rarely, if at all patients recover or get any better, which unfortunately doesn't make it any easier for the people they mentally leave behind.

My second meeting with Alzheimer's happened many years ago, in fact more years than I care to remember (no pun intended). I had taken on a job as an insurance collections man. Now before technology took over and everybody paid things with direct debits, credit cards and the Internet, alot of Insurance companies would send agents out door to door to collect premiums. I remember as a child, every Friday night around the same time, two knocks on the door, one from the rent man and another from the insurance man. The only other knock came on a Tuesday night and that was from the catalogue man. Even as a child, I couldn't work out why he came on a Tuesday, it was obvious to me then that everyone got paid on Friday and people were always skint by Monday, no wonder he never got paid. I quickly understood when my mother used to shout,
'Everybody get behind the settee and be quiet,"
How I fell into my collections job now, I can't really recall, I think it may have been through a friend of a friend or a neighbour. I only remember turning up one wet Monday morning, wearing an ill-fitting suit outside a big glass office in the centre of town. The training was sparse, basically here's a book, go to these addresses, ask for money and write it down again on a card. How times have changed. The first few occasions, I was not allowed to go out alone. I was accompanied by an older man called Bernie. A good Company man who had been with the firm thirty-five years man and boy.
"Be strong with them, young man," he would say, "no excuses, Friday is payday."
Even at that age, I didn't understand the concept of life insurance, but when your 18, you think that you are going to live forever anyway.
Whilst out with Bernie, I was not allowed to speak,
"Watch and learn, young man." He would be forever saying. Watch and learn! What I thought? Knock on the door, say your lines, collect the money and write it on the card. That seemed to be the whole job in a nutshell. After a couple of weeks I was allowed out on my own. I was given a list of clients and told to go and collect their premiums. It was a completely new round to the one I had accompanied Bernie on. The first two collections were fine, money taken, card signed. The third door I knocked on was a bit different. After a short wait, I decided to walk away and on to the next. I opened my book and was about to write down, no answer. When the door creaked open, a little old man stood there, unshaven and dressed in pyjamas.
"Mr Davis?" I enquired.
"Yes!" he whispered
"Alliance Victoria, I have come to collect your Insurance premiums?"
He rubbed his chin and scratched his head before inviting me into his front room.
"Wait here young man," he said, "I will go and get the money."
With that he disappeared into the next room. I stood tapping my book on my leg and looking aimlessly around.
A few seconds later, he walked back into the room, looked at me and gave an almighty scream..."Who are you? What are you doing in my house?"
I looked at him, bewilderment written all over my face, "Mr Davis, I am from Alliance Victoria, I have come to collect your Insurance premiums?"
His expression changed, he reached over and took my hand tapping it slowly, "I know, wait here young man, I will go and get the money."
A few seconds later, he returned again, "Aaahhh!" he screamed "Who are you? What are you doing in my house?"
By this time, I knew things weren't quite right. He stared at me with a vacant look, as if he was trying to picture who I was. I thought I would try once more.
"Mr Davis, Alliance Victoria, I have come to collect your premiums?" This time I showed him my book with the Company logo on.
"I know who you are!" he smiled, "I have been with you for years, now wait here, I will go and get your money."
He walked to the door and stopped, turning back around he looked at me hard for a second. "Who did you say you were again?" he quizzed.
I took him by the hand and walked him through the door, "I'm from Alliance Victoria," I kept repeating. "Come to collect your Insurance premiums for Alliance Victoria."
"Yes, I know..." he whispered.
I eventually collected his money and signed his card, leaving the old man sitting in his chair. I was just left with a feeling of sadness. Back at the office, various enquiries about Mr Davis just fell on deaf ears. Nobody seemed to know or care about the old man just as long as he paid his £1.04 every week. It left me thinking that maybe the £1.04 he spent should be used now to look after him rather than when he was dead.
The next week, Mr Davis house was in darkness and his curtains were closed. I gave a feeble knock to his door, not really wanting or expecting him to answer...he didn't.
I left the Company the following week, I felt I needed a reason to do a job and for the life of me, I could not think of one for this.
I know care for this particular illness is alot better now and I applaud that, it just reminds me of something my father used to say, "Son look after the young and the old and let the ones in the middle take care of themselves."
Maybe they should teach that in schools.


  1. Fantastic loved it, well told Tom

  2. Loved this post, it showcases your talent with both wit and compassion. My grandmother suffered from this in the end of her life and though she could remember being twelve, yesterday was a blur. She left of us before she no longer knew us, but she held on long enough to see my fifth child. There were complications and it was months before I could travel and bring the baby to see her. She held on until she held her, then died 21 hours later. This is devastating on families, especially the primary caregiver, but friends and extended family can offer relief. Thanks for posting it, I always look forward to hearing what you have to say. Now off to buy your books.

    1. Many thanks Ange, very touching, thank you for your wonderful comments, Tom x

  3. I've never had any dealings with anyone with Alzheimers and I'm hoping I never do especially amyone in my family. But I do love the way you told your story....and it did actually bring a tear to my eye reading about the old man.

  4. An amusing but sad tale. You tell it so well Tom, that's probably why you're a writer... and I remember the Insurance man calling on a Thursday night. He used to stay and have a chat and a cuppa. Not with me obviously I was a mere whipper snapper. As all nice chaps do he used to play me up, think he was funny..and he was. Wonder what happened to him. My husbands grandmother had Alzheimers. We used to visit often, she always used to ask if he was working that night over & over & over.. we all used to look at each other all thinking the same thing 'don't laugh'. It wasn't funny though, not really. We laugh at the funny little scenario's but really it's a terrible disease when the person isn't the person we once knew or even know themselves anymore. Thank you for sharing Tom. Love your stories..look forward to reading more.

  5. What a very touching piece. You handled a sensitive subject with keen insight and a touch of humor. We have a loved one in a nursing home and every time we visit and see the quality of life (or lack thereof) of the folks there, I am reminded of how blessed we are to be living healthy and happy in this moment. It's often true that you don't know what you've got til it's gone. Thanks for sharing such a great piece.

    1. Thanks Karen, I am so happy you appreciated, bless you, it is so true, we sometimes don't know how lucky we are.

  6. Loved it tom, my grandads second wife had alzheimers, its a frustrating disease. Your story was very interesting and well written. Keep writing tom, its something you truly are good at!

  7. Tom, a very touching and well written piece. I especially felt for the old man.
    I remember the insurance man coming when I was a child, and the man from Radio Rentals to collect for the hire of the telly!

  8. Brilliant piece about a very sensitive subject. my mother suffered and reading your piece made me laugh remembering back to certain times when dealing with my mum. many thanks.

  9. Hi Tom, Not offended one bit. In fact, your story brings back memories of comical episodes involving my mother, who suffered from this malady, for many years. She would comment on topics that would have us rolling on the floor. We suffered, laughed, cried, and through it all, we were able to cope. Our strong belief in God saw us through her ordeal. Thank you for your post. Love your style. Blessings.