Sunday, 16 June 2013

Origins 7: My First Caseload: Aggie and Mother

Part 7 in an occasional series about my early years as a social worker in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Written down before I forget.

Aggie was in her early 60’s. She lived with her 97 year old mother on a smallholding in a particularly remote part of the Charwood Social Services catchment area.

The smallholding consisted of about 10 acres of small fields and meadows enclosed by hedges, an oasis in the midst of the vast, open, intensively farmed fields of an industrial style farm.

To reach her home, you had to drive a couple of hundred yards along a track across one of these huge fields, ploughed over in the winter, and swaying with wheat, or barley, or oats in the summer.

Once through the gate of Aggie’s smallholding, you had to park up and walk the rest of the way through meadows full of wild flowers, where her small herd of cows grazed, until you reached what she referred to as the farmhouse.

It took a leap of imagination to see this structure as a “farmhouse”. In reality, it was a single storey timber clad barn with a corrugated iron roof, a few small windows, and a dilapidated door that led into what passed as her kitchen cum living room.

It had been built by hand about 50 years previously by her father, who had a little money after serving in the 1st World War. He bought a few acres in the tiny hamlet and decided to raise his family there. He had died many years previously, but his daughter and wife still lived there.

Aggie and her mother lived in the most primitive conditions imaginable. They had no electricity or running water. All their water was obtained from a well just outside the back door. There was a tiny corrugated iron outbuilding which contained a plank of wood with a large hole in it and a bucket underneath the hole.

The interior of the “farmhouse” consisted of the kitchen cum sitting room, which contained an ancient and inefficient coal fired range that was kept alight all the time. It was the only heating or cooking facility they had. In the winter, the temperature rarely rose above 10C.

Unaccountably, the room was furnished with a range of fine antique furniture, all of it now very dilapidated and wormy. There was also a piano, and on the walls, in the dim light, could be seen huge Victorian oil paintings, some of them reaching from floor to ceiling. It was almost impossible to tell what the subjects of these paintings were, as they were covered in a film of soot from the oil lamps which were Aggie’s only source of light.

There was what Aggie called a parlour, but which she mainly used as a store room, and there were two bedrooms. Aggie slept in one, and her mother slept in another.

Aggie always took pride in introducing me to “Mother” during my visits. This meant a visit to the bedroom, where Mother appeared to spend her entire life.

Mother had had a number of strokes. This had left her almost completely immobile, and apparently incapable of speech. I certainly never heard her say a coherent word. She probably had dementia as well, but it was hard to tell.

It is very difficult to adequately describe Mother’s appearance. She was very obese, and very pale. Folds of flesh covered her face. Her eyes rarely opened. Her body was covered in tattered and ragged, mainly white layers of old fashioned nightdresses, which put one in mind of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. In fact, the entire experience of visiting Aggie and her mother was exactly like stepping into a Dickens novel.

Mother was incontinent, and Aggie’s solution to this was to cover the mattress with roofing felt. As well as protecting the mattress, this also served the function, she would tell me, of preventing Mother from slipping too far down in the bed.

During these visits, Aggie would introduce me to Mother, and then prop her up in a sitting position. Mother very occasionally would open one eye to examine me, and even more rarely would make some sort of noise in response. I was never sure she had any idea what was going on, but Aggie would delightedly interpret these possibly random utterances as insightful comments about the weather or current events.

Aggie tried to keep alive the dream her father had of living the good life off the land, but to be honest, she was not very good at this.  She kept chickens, and tried to grow vegetables. She had a grape vine and would attempt to make wine out of the juice come the Autumn. She once offered me a bottle of this concoction, but I could not bring myself to try it.

She also used to make jam, with a minimum of sugar, as it was expensive, which meant that a layer of mould would soon appear on the top. I know this, because she once kindly gave me a jar. She also made various medicinal preparations using traditional recipes. One of my predecessors had once been reckless enough to try one of Aggie’s special complexion ointments, and had come out in a rash.

She and her mother lived a life of most extreme poverty. Their main source of income was their pensions, and although periodically Aggie would arrange for one or two of the cows or calves to go off to market, I suspected that the herd cost her more to maintain than the income she obtained from it.

Because of their isolation, several miles from the nearest shop, Aggie relied on a local grocer who would deliver in his van to obtain her weekly groceries. She had a standing order which would be delivered every week. She was fearful of changing this order for fear of upsetting the grocer and losing their lifeline.

One of the consequences of this was that she would have a carton of salt delivered every week without fail. She once showed me her stockpile of salt that she kept in the parlour. It occupied nearly half of the room. Even though she now had enough salt to last her the rest of her life, she would not entertain cancelling this part of the order “just in case”.

Aggie was very frugal and economical. If she wore out the cuffs of a shirt or blouse, she would simply cut off the sleeves up to the elbow and then attach some other sleeves using large stitches of wool. It didn’t matter whether or not the fabric matched in any way.

Despite apparently living life in the past, Aggie had a portable radio and would listen to Radio 4 all day long, so she was always up to date on national and world events, and actually had a keen and intelligent mind.

Although she had never seen a psychiatrist, Aggie probably had schizophrenia. She would often suddenly start whispering in the middle of a conversation, pointing to the ceiling and muttering under her breath about how the neighbouring farmer had fitted listening devices and was spying on her.

At this point, you may be wondering exactly what good a social worker was doing for Aggie and Mother. What I was endeavouring to do was to preserve the lifestyle they had chosen, and at times to deflect demands for “something to be done”. I would make sure that they had the benefits to which they were entitled, and my regular visits also monitored Aggie’s needs as a carer and provided Aggie with an outlet in which she could engage in an adult conversation.

One day, I had a phone call from Aggie. This took quite an effort for her. It meant she had to cycle the mile to the nearest public phone box.

She was beside herself. Mother had had another stroke. She needed a doctor.

I phoned Mother’s GP. I arranged to do a home visit with him.

I met him at the “farmhouse” and he examined Mother.

He agreed that she had had a stroke and that she needed to be in hospital.

This horrified Aggie.

“Mother won’t like it in hospital!” she wailed. “She won’t be able to hear the lowing of the cows, and the dawn chorus! She’ll pine away! She needs to stay here!”

But the doctor was clear. She was ill and needed to be in hospital. He was off to the nearest phone box to call them.

But I was thinking. What was in Mother’s best interests?

I knew for a fact that, once she was in hospital, she would never be allowed to return to the Victorian hovel that Aggie regarded as home. A district nurse would take one look at their living conditions and would refuse to allow it.

I was convinced that Mother would die in hospital if she were to be admitted.

Aggie offered Mother love and uncomplaining round the clock care in the environment that Mother had always known. So far, she had managed to keep her alive despite her poor health and extreme age. It wasn’t all about the physical environment.

I argued this case to the GP. Although he was clearly looking at the situation from the point of view of a medic who sees a medical condition and has a set of routines for dealing with it, he did nevertheless listen to me. He could see my point.

In the end, it was agreed that he would drop in on Mother over the next few days to observe her progress. She would not be admitted to hospital after all.

I felt pleased. I told Aggie the good news. But she was so distressed by the threat that she felt she needed to focus her distress on someone.

“It’s your fault!” she said. “You’ve come here wearing grey. Grey is an unlucky colour! You’ve put a jinx on Mother! This would never have happened if it wasn’t for you!”

And despite my successful efforts to produce an outcome that would be best for Mother and for Aggie, Aggie refused to see me again.

You don’t often get thanks as a social worker. But that’s all part of the job.


  1. Miss Havisham was in Great Expectations! Tsk!

    Great post.