The Impact of Poor Quality Housing on a Senior Citizen's Life
Determined not to be a 'burden' on anyone
After 12 months of living in surroundings resembling a building site, my mum, Audrey Evans, aged 79 at the time, finally decided enough was enough.
She chose to move in with my brother, despite being fiercely independent and always determined not to be a "burden" on anyone, as she described it. Of course, she was NEVER a burden. We loved her dearly. But she valued her independence.
After my dad Richard's sudden death, nine years earlier, she had struggled on for a year in their spacious house.
But it was too full of memories - not to mention too large for an elderly lady on her own - and she decided to rent an apartment instead through a local lettings agency.
It had all started well. She had money in the bank from the sale of their house, although not as much as anticipated. Mum had sold to the first buyer at a knockdown price, because she was so desperate to move, but there was still a mortgage outstanding.
She wasn't well off, but said as long as she had enough to live on for the rest of her days, she didn't mind. She managed to rent a compact apartment in the same neighbourhood.
Living in a medium-size seaside town, which was pleasant enough, on the Lancashire coast in the UK, mum looked forward to enjoying her retirement in peace, able to visit and stay with her family, while retaining her independence.
Meticulous as she had been all her life, she worked out her savings should last around another 10 years, after which she "might" move in with one of her children.
"It would make me feel old!" she would say.
Still walking some 10 miles a day for exercise, she didn't look her age and was fitter than many women half her years.
For a while life was good
The apartment was pleasant and in a central location, near to shops and bus routes, while the neighbours upstairs were a friendly young couple, for whom she baked cakes and watched their premises when they were on holiday.
For a while, life was good. She was able to spend her old age pension on what she pleased - the first time in her life she had ever had a little money to spare - while paying her rent and bills out of her savings.
With two adult children - a son and a daughter - she was often taken out to lunch and for drives. Her grand-daughter - my niece Becky - was bright as a button and kept mum on her toes.
But all was to change when the owner of the apartment above - a young business woman - decided she wished to move back in, having split up from her husband.
She gave the friendly young couple notice to quit and they had gone within weeks, leaving mum lonely.
The owner, who was not without money, spent a fortune on renovating her apartment before moving in.
Hammering, swearing and loud music filled the air
Mum, her bedroom directly below the young woman's sitting room, suffered hammering, banging, drilling, shouting, swearing and loud music for 18 hours a day for around six months.
"Don't these people ever sleep?" she wondered.
The air was constantly filled with a cloud of dust as floors were ripped out and new ones put in.
Every piece of built-in furniture - even the sink and bathroom suite - were removed and dragged past mum's door, to be dumped in the garden outside her bedroom window, often not being moved for many weeks.
Not one to complain, she presumed it would get better once the renovations were complete and the owner finally moved in.
However, the situation deteriorated further as the building work continued. On three occasions, pipes were burst, leading to water pouring through mum's bedroom ceiling and down her walls.
Many of her treasured old photographs were ruined by the damp - not to mention her old wooden bureau, her only heirloom. The bedroom ceiling cracked from one side to the other and fungal, damp patches started appearing on the walls.
Polite complaints to the new resident were answered in a civil enough manner, with promises it would be "sorted out".
But it soon became apparent this was not going to happen and in a short time, her retirement haven had become a hell on earth.
Drunken revellers slamming doors at 5am
Mum's drain blocked with cement and the guttering above her bedroom was left hanging off by careless roof repairs.
Soon, the young woman upstairs found a new boyfriend. Parties ensued on all nights of the week, when crowds of inebriated thirty-somethings would pile up and down the stairs at all hours, often leaving at 5am and slamming the front door loudly.
Sleepless nights became a matter of course - and mum could not even have a nap during the day because this was when further renovations continued.
The lettings agent was seemingly powerless to intervene, because the apartment upstairs was privately owned and not their responsibility.
Finally, mum's own gas boiler broke irreparably and the lettings agent took more than a week to arrange to have it replaced, in the middle of a bitterly cold winter.
Mum's health was beginning to suffer. She suffered high blood pressure, anxiety attacks and nightmares. She was then diagnosed as having a heart problem.
In addition, there seemed to be no sign of the anti-social behaviour upstairs stopping.
One day, looking round her apartment, with its damp walls, cracked ceiling and grey marks on the carpet where builders' dust had been trodden in, mum realised she could not take any more.
The lettings agent had done nothing to alleviate the damp problems, despite our repeated complaints. Nor did they repair her ceiling. She couldn't take any more and just wanted a quiet life.
Mum handed in her month's notice to the lettings agent and made immediate plans to finally move in with my brother, who had a lovely house some 10 miles away.
He was always telling her, "Mum, your bedroom's waiting for you - just tell us when you're ready to move in."
"Sorry you can't move out"!
No sooner had mum handed in her notice, however, than she received a phone call from an employee at the lettings office.
"I'm sorry, but you can't move out next month - your contract still has another ten months to run."
Mum, baffled, said she understood she was on one month's notice.
"Oh, no, that's only AFTER your contract expires," explained the lettings clerk.
With her health deteriorating mentally and physically - and her savings dwindling to pay rent for a home she now loathed and which made her ill - mum believed she had no choice other than to move out.
"No-one ever explained this to me," she protested tearfully.
But the lettings clerk remained unmoved.
"It was all there in the contract you signed," she said firmly. "I'm sorry, but you have to see out your tenancy. You'll still be liable for the rent, even if you move out."
Mum was devastated.
Moving in with my brother had been a light at the end of a very black tunnel.
But due to her naivety in not properly reading the contract, she was tied to an apartment which she had grown to detest.
She had not understood she was subject to a long term tenancy, which was renewed every 12 months. She had never taken out a tenancy before.
When she first signed up, mum trusted the clerk who handled the paperwork and she did not read the small print.
She recalled the words "one month's notice" but did not realise this meant after each 12-month tenancy period was completed.
The lettings clerk had informed her the contract was "just a formality" and "nothing to worry about" and mum had trusted her, signing it without question.
Lettings agency bombarded mum with cash demands
Coming from an era when an appointment at the bank actually meant to see your bank manager, in the days before call centres, automated telephone helplines and the internet, mum had always relied on personal service and integrity.
"How could I have been so foolish?" she said afterwards.
She knew, of course, she could not see out the tenancy. Her health - with more
frequent hospital and doctor's appointments - dictated that she needed to move in with my brother sooner rather than later.
So she simply reiterated to the lettings agency that she had to move out for health reasons and stopped the direct debit at the bank.
For the next six months, mum was continually bombarded with letters from the lettings agent, reminding her of her liability to pay the rent. Apparently, no-one else had moved in and the apartment was empty - but who would move in when it was so damp and musty, she wondered?
No repairs were carried out and the place was not even given a coat of paint, she learned.
Court action threat to "recover losses"
I finally went to see the lettings agent myself and I was told "off the record" that they would not pursue mum for the rent, because they realised she was elderly, ill and that it was a lot of money, especially since she had left the apartment long ago.
"You can't get blood out of a stone," the counter clerk told me.
As time passed and lives moved on, with mum finally beginning to recover her good health and humour some months later, the lettings agent hit her for six.
Right out of the blue, when nothing had been heard for months, they had passed her "case" on to their legal department, who had decided to take her to court to recover their losses in terms of the rent.
Mum nearly fainted. How could a large, national company such as this sue an elderly woman - now in her 80s - who had become ill through living in their rented property that they did not repair? What could they possibly hope to get out of it?
Legal advice was hastily sought - surely it could be proven that living in a damp, noisy flat was unsuitable for a lady of that age?
But all roads led back to the contract mum had innocently signed - having no idea she was "signing her life away", as she later described it.
In a court of law, she would lose, she was informed.
A life shattered by not reading the small print
Her options were very limited.
She could either pay back the outstanding rent - which ran into thousands of pounds - by an informal, out of court agreement with the lettings agent, even though she was no longer living in the property at that time.
Alternatively, she could let them take her to court and hope the judge accepted her version of events.
Or finally, she could declare herself bankrupt.
But mum was loathe to do this.
"It will mean my name going in the local paper," she explained. "I would lose my dignity. I just can't do it."
So when she should have been enjoying a peaceful and happy retirement with her family, she had the threat of a court case hanging over her as the legal wrangle continued.
Very tragically, my dear mum passed away before it was ever settled, but the lettings agency (whom I can't name for legal reasons) blighted her twilight years with their constant demands for thousands of pounds.
Anyone looking to take out a tenancy - or indeed sign any documents with legal repercussions - should ALWAYS read the small print. Make sure you know what you are signing before putting pen to paper.
In particular, elderly people who are concerned they might not understand need to have someone with them who can check out the fine details before they sign on the dotted line. It could have life-changing consequences.