Some of these photos are not pretty, but I won’t apologise. You need to see them.
I visited a family friend, Grace (not her real name) who lives alone in a small, neatly appointed apartment. This is in a cluster built for senior people, with a caretaker whose work includes performing welfare checks, keeping the bins area tidy and locking the gates at night. Grace has a helper, paid by herself, who drops in a few times each week and can bring groceries or take Grace out by car. Grace calls this person by first name, but I’ll just say her helper.
Grace does have family in the area, but she had to move away from them when, widowed, she downsized to the apartment. The family members can’t visit as often, and during the Pandemic lockdowns a ‘bubble’ of three was the allowed maximum of visitors, one of whom was the cheerful helper. Now, the family sometimes take Grace out for lunch. To be clear: she’s not a hoarder.
I spent the day cleaning Grace’s kitchen. The infestation of fruit flies that pervaded the apartment was my first clue that this was needed.
Grace doesn’t see too well any more, despite wearing glasses and having had cataract surgery several years ago. She uses a laptop with efficiency, the screen contents greatly magnified. I took a photo of a few fruit flies sitting on a cupboard door, with my phone. Magnifying the image meant Grace realised she had pests for the first time.
I had to go out to shop for fly spray. On my way I took the black rubbish bag, tied, to the bins. It was only partly full, but I hoped this would remove most of the trouble.
I photographed of the ceiling of the microwave. Grace needs walking aids as her balance deteriorated during lockdown, and she can’t bend down very well, so she does not bend to look up inside her microwave. I did, and I cleaned it immediately, but the dirt did not come off. The white coating was bubbling, cracking to patches of metal, which was rusted.
“Do you use the microwave a lot?” I asked the lady as she sat in her armchair sipping tea.
“All the time. I only use the oven when someone else is here to take the hot food out.”
I showed the photo to Grace, magnifying it and moving around the rust.
“What would you think this is?”
“Something nasty,” she said, peering at it suspiciously.
“That’s the roof of your microwave. This is a fire hazard, because it can arc and spark and it could set your food on fire.”
“Oh,” she said, raising a hand to her face, “a lady in another apartment had a kitchen fire which started in her microwave, and the fire brigade had to be called. She was put in a home for Alzheimer’s.”
“You can’t use this. It must be replaced.”
“If you like, I’ll help you buy one from Amazon or an electrical store that delivers.”
“We might do that. But I can’t use my debit card on line, because they want you to have a mobile phone to go with it.”
“Yes, two factor authentication. You just need to tap a button or type in a code to prove the card wasn’t stolen.” (2FA.)
“But I don’t have a phone. I don’t have a need for one.”
Grace has a landline, but if she doesn’t recognise the incoming number, she does not answer, in case of scammers. She has her laptop, and can use Zoom. She also phoned a catalogue firm for mobility aids while I was present, and made a purchase. Buying a mobile, signing up to a carrier and paying a continual credit cost so the unused mobile would stay active, are not priorities for her pension money. During the Pandemic she was confined to her home, and now doesn’t leave without help. She’s up a flight of stairs, and she doesn’t do stairs well; the width is too narrow to fit a stairlift without potentially impeding a fire crew.
I suggested using my credit card on Amazon, and Grace could write me a cheque. At first she agreed, but later she decided she wanted to look at microwaves in person, so her helper, who (I refrained from commenting) had not spotted the danger, would drive her the following day.
I turned to the rest of the tiny kitchen. This has just room for one person to walk between two walls lined with cupboards and appliances, and a sink at the window end. Counters are cluttered with all the items that there is no room to store in the cupboards, or that Grace can’t reach high for and needs frequently. I wiped the washing machine. When people do not do this, the inside of the glass can actually grow green algae. The powder drawer can get mouldy. This machine was quite clean, but as I always do at home, I ran my fingers around the inner door seal. This consists of folds of rubber which trap stray buttons and socks. I pulled out a substantial double handful of fluff. This seal had never been cleaned. A broken blue plastic button was amid the weighty tangle. I carried the fluff in to Grace and told her where I’d found it. She prodded it and turned the button over, perhaps wondering which item was missing a button.
“I don’t know if this is a fire hazard, but it might be,” I told her. “Also it’s not hygienic, because dirt from one wash gets trapped here and released into the next wash. And it would shorten the life of the door seal.” (A mechanical engineer I asked later, identified this fluff as a potential fire hazard.) I then wiped a sponge around the inside seal and produced another small handful of gunk.
I was reminded of the distant days when I lived at home, when my mother couldn’t figure out why the tumble dryer was taking so long to dry the clothes. I investigated because I was tired of hearing its rumble — nobody had said anything to me. I found the elephant trunk-like hose coming from the back of the machine was heavy with a half-basin worth of water. The grating by which it should expel steam into the outdoors, was completely choked with fluff. Mum only knew to clean the filter in the machine itself.
That’s another fire hazard.
Returning to work, I spotted the toaster. This appliance was jammed against a wall with items stacked around it. Toasters should be ventilated. I had to lift it up and out to check the crumb tray. Which was bedded deep in crumbs.
“That’s another fire hazard,” I reported to Grace, “you have to empty this regularly. Shake it upside down over the bin or sink if you can’t get the tray out. And you need to leave space around it when it’s in use.” She just stared at me, by now looking quite worried.
With crumbs already on the floor supplemented by those I’d dislodged, I fetched the vacuum cleaner from just inside the door of the small spare bedroom. This was the only item of use I could see, as the rest of the room was crammed with stacked furniture, boxes, black bags and big suitcases. I asked carefully if Grace needed all this stuff.
“I made sure I got a second bedroom apartment so my young relatives could come and stay. And originally, they did. But now they ask me to store their stuff instead. That’s the only place for it. And there’s so much, nobody can come and stay anymore.”
I didn’t know if this was indeed the intention, so I said nothing. Grace didn’t sound pleased. She had knitted baby clothes for these young people.
I’ve met a lot of families who were storing stuff for other family members, and sometimes, if it was in a garage, this imposition led to rodent issues, and the whole lot being junked. I’ve advised people to tell their kids to pick up what they wanted within one week, or the lot was going to be binned or donated. Usually this is the eventual outcome when the couple downsize. But Grace is alone, and comparatively vulnerable. The young people think she doesn’t use that room. She could use the space to spread out her belongings. She has no storage cupboard, and everything from bathroom toiletries to clothes, books and jigsaws has to be stacked in the room where it will be used. There is barely room to walk. I would be inclined to tell the relatives to pay for a storage facility. But I don’t have to live with the situation.
The vacuum would stop working soon, because either the engine would burn out or it would go on fire.
“Are there any other heads for this vacuum?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t think so, I never saw any. X just arrived with it one day.”
“This makes an awful noise,” I said a minute later, stopping the machine in horror. A whine combined with a growl — that’s not good.
“Yes, it’s very noisy. I can’t use it, my helper uses it.”
“I’m thinking the noise is why it was given to you.”
“…You’re probably right,” said Grace, who has partial hearing loss, losing her smile and turning away as she spoke.
“Does it need a new bag or what?” I use a Dyson, but I remember how the bag ones work. I switched it off at the wall socket and crouched to open the cover.
The bag was full to bursting point. With that removed, I found that the nylon filter which protects the engine from dust was matted with fluff and dirt. So was the filter on the outgoing air flow. Grace’s helper had been forcing air and dirt into a machine that could not store or expel it.
“This is full and the filters are clogged,” I told Grace, showing her the evidence. “It would stop working soon, because either the engine would burn out or it would go on fire.” She stared at the small vacuum. I had to empty the reusable bag; the worst of both worlds. I did this sitting on the floor in the kitchen, pulling brick-like compressed dust and hair out of the small opening with my fingers and putting it in a rubbish bag. Sneezing. I cleaned the filters and reassembled the machine. Then I tied the neck of the rubbish bag, placed it ready to bring to the bins, washed the dust mites off my hands. I used the vacuum to clean the kitchen floor. The growl was as loud but the protesting whine was gone.
“The bag has to be checked every time it’s used,” I told Grace. “People won’t do that because they don’t want to empty it; it’s not nice sitting on the floor and pulling the dirt out with your fingers. So you have to tell them to take the cover off and check where you can see it.” She nodded in silence.
We enjoyed a gorgeous lunch, chicken with honey and mustard sauce, baked in a ceramic dish. Grace’s helper had prepped this and left it uncooked in the fridge, and potatoes were ready for roasting. I moved the dishes in and out of the oven as I cleaned. The oven door handle was broken, so instead I had to pull a protruding screw.
“I don’t use it,” was Grace’s explanation as to why it wasn’t fixed, but then she looked at me wearing the oven gloves which were overly large and thick, and connected by too short a strip of material. “Those are awkward oven gloves, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” I said. I could imagine people passing on anything awkward to someone who would neither use it much nor complain. The gloves weren’t decorated so they were not chosen personally for Grace. And she would have bought something prettier, in a size suited to her hands.
After we’d had lunch, Grace settled in to a daytime TV murder mystery. She told me she normally recorded them so she could skip through the ads. I don’t watch daytime TV, but I took note that the ads were of two sorts. One sort offered instant loans, big TVs, sofas, and beds. The other sort presented some individual, usually a child or an older person with a dog, who needed help from a charity, and asked for donations or bequests. I saw these while I was clearing the plates, making, pouring and drinking tea, and coming from the kitchen to ask Grace some question. She doesn’t hear across the apartment when the TV competes. Although she has two expensive digital hearing aids, they do not help, she says.
“Don’t bother with the cupboard of herb and spice jars, I know there’s some spilled,” she told me. “My helper and I are going to spend an hour next week taking everything out and cleaning it.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll do the washing up now.” Grace could not see into the kitchen. I opened the cupboard, lifted three herb jars and wiped up the loose herbs. There wasn’t any more to do. Having washed the dishes — there were still fruit flies — I started moving items from the counter on the right to the counter on the left, which I’d washed before lunch and was now dry. I moved a plastic-wrapped loaf of bread, stared at what was behind it, and got my phone. I took a photo of a rotten, black, mouldy banana and showed it to Grace.
“Where did you see that?” she asked, puzzled as to why I was showing her this strange item.
“On your right hand counter behind the bread. This is why you have fruit flies. The mould spores would make breathing unhealthy too.”
She laughed in astonishment. There was nothing she could say.
I went out to the bins again.
I investigated the fridge, which was pretty full, some items were in lunchboxes and some in the original packets. I looked in the vegetable drawer on the bottom.
Two heads of lettuce had gone to soup in their plastic bag. Grace wasn’t aware they existed. (When I later told a different relative, who lives a lot further from Grace, about these findings, she said, “That lettuce is probably there since we brought some the last time we visited. I always go through her fridge throwing out anything expired.”)
I went out to the bins again. Then I washed out the drawer and cleaned the bottom of the fridge cabinet under the drawer. It wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t being cleaned. I asked Grace about the freezer section below it, which had three shelves that all looked fairly full.
“I don’t know what is in there,” she said. “My helper brings fresh food every week and that’s what I use.” Since the freezer didn’t need defrosting, and my time was running short, I let it go, but ideally I would check use-by dates, make a written list, and suggest that Grace ask her helper to plan meals to use the food.
Lastly, I did some dusting in the living room. Grace has ornaments and framed photos, and she was concerned over their being handled, but I assured her that I was being careful, and wiped them with a damp cloth. These items were dusty. Grace can’t see well enough to dust small objects anymore. She can’t see that they need dusting, so she does not ask anyone, and nobody offers.
The phone rang and Grace answered, telling her helper that they needed to go out the next day and buy a new microwave. She would explain when they met. I thought of adding the cost of the person’s hour to the price of the appliance, taking the helper away from other domestic tasks. I wondered about a helper who would stand prepping a chicken and potatoes meal in a kitchen swarming with fruit flies, and never mention them. Or plan to spend an hour sorting the herb jars, when they never cleaned the fridge or emptied the vacuum bag. Security guards and first-aiders have to attend a training course and get certification, but anyone can be a paid domestic helper.
Nobody in this scenario is from a minority or disadvantaged background. Nobody is uneducated, uncaring or unpleasant.
My day identified these domestic hazards.
· Microwave interior rusted
· Washing machine door seal full of fluff
· Toaster unventilated and tray deep in crumbs
· Vacuum bag and filters not emptied and cleaned.
· Fruit fly infestation
· Rotten, mouldy banana on the worktop beside other food
· Two heads of lettuce rotten in the fridge
· Oven door handle broken
· Clumsy, too-big oven gloves means items might be dropped
· Freezer contents unknown and potential for expired dates
· Cupboard contents potential for expired dates, as the owner cannot see well enough to read the tiny dates on packs.
· Clutter in the spare room. The lack of that room means the owner’s contents are now not well distributed; she could trip and fall
· Vacuum not being used often, due to noise and unpleasant duty of emptying the bag
· Dust collecting, which increases dust mites and breathing problems
· No mobile phone means no two-factor authentication, severing the person from online purchasing, banking and many state services.
What can we do for our seniors?
· Visit more often and check for hazards. Phrase it as checking the smoke alarm, to give the visitor peace of mind, if the senior objects. Don’t just take the person out — spend time in their home.
· Be proactive about mobility aids, as there is now a wide variety.
· Provide advice on scam phone calls and emails. Another senior I know had a nice Indian man phone up and tell her that her computer had a problem. She hadn’t noticed, but gave him money to fix it, online, because she is originally from India, and so of course this had to be a nice man.
· Ask companies and supermarkets to make the use-by dates on food bigger and clearer.
· Ask the state, and phone companies, if a basic mobile phone and low cost package can be provided to seniors so they can use 2FA, without which many of the benefits and securities of the internet will increasingly be denied to them. This would not be profitable so it should be classed as Corporate Social Responsibility.
· Ask retirement village caretakers to hold an appliance safety checking day annually. Inform them of why there is a need.
· Ask for specific fire safety warnings about appliances to be placed on daytime TV. The usual warnings are about candles, and Grace never lights candles as they set off her smoke alarm.
· Buy something useful for delivery to the senior’s address. Grace has a Kindle and a Kindle app on her laptop, but she can’t buy a Kindle book any more. I am notifying her of free download days for books which she might enjoy. I sent her a couple of paperbacks for Christmas — she has a page magnifier, and a book/ tablet / Kindle stand, which can hold the book upright on a table or tray. Flowers are lovely, but given the choice, I would prefer carefully selected books.
· Require all paid domestic carers to attend training and gain a certificate of competence.