Jeannie, 75, lives a contented life in her one-bedroomed bungalow in Bedfordshire with her cats. She volunteers as a befriender/counsellor for Silver Line (a national helpline for older people) and works in the RSPCA shop in Ampthill. She is a trained hedgehog rehabilitator and she sings in a choir. Jeannie describes this as a ‘normal’ life, one that she credits Grand Union for providing. However 10 years ago, Jeannie couldn’t have imagined what life had in store for her.
In 2009 Jeannie was working as a senior medical secretary in Bedfordshire when she was advised she was being compulsorily retired on her 65th birthday the following year. This was a few months before the new anti-ageist legislation came into force.
With no job and no income, Jeannie knew she would lose her house. With no partner or family to depend on, Jeannie frantically applied for jobs. She’d been working since she was 15 years old; her work was her life.
“I had been solely responsible for a three month cat rescue operation at the local hospital, rescuing stray cats and their kittens that were taking shelter under the building. Management had been unhappy with the press reports about the project so when I appealed, twice, to the Chief Executive, both of my appeals were dismissed. The hostile work environment started to get to me and my mental health suffered as a result. No-one asked how I was, no-one seemed to care and I spiralled into a breakdown.”
Jeannie took the first job that was offered to her as a senior medical secretary in a cancer specialist unit at a London hospital, but she only lasted three weeks in the high pressure role before she broke down completely.
“Over the years I tried many different temporary jobs – secretarial, administrative, cleaning, caring, washing up but I discovered that ageism was alive and well in the work place and, coupled with me losing so much confidence in myself, I just couldn’t cope.
“Inevitably I lost my house. Paying off the huge interest only mortgage took most of my money and I ended up supplementing my pension with credit cards.
“I managed to rent a two bedroomed terraced house but it turned out to be next door to a halfway house for serious ex offenders. There were fights, drug addicts lurking, loud music playing and regular police raids. Prostitutes would stagger, drunk, into my garden and ask to come in. The house got smashed up several times and the door battered down three times. Police were coming to the door at all hours of the day and night.
“Me and my beloved cats lived in a constant state of high anxiety. Every tenant seemed to go back to prison and every new tenant brought a new problem. I was always being asked for money and if I didn’t give it to them, they’d bang on my door at night. My car was keyed, and a particularly unstable man stalked and harassed me relentlessly.”
Jeannie’s mental health began to decline again; her physical health wasn’t good either. She had an ongoing mobility problem due to osteoporosis, severe arthritis and previously undiagnosed fractures in the spine.
“I thought nothing else could go wrong. Then the landlord put the rent up. It was more than my pension paid me and my credit cards were maxed out. I knew I’d reached the end of the line – homelessness.
“Then in early 2016, shining like a beacon of light in my darkness and despair, Grand Union contacted me and offered me the tenancy of the bungalow I live in now. I couldn’t believe my luck!
“I’ve been in my home for nearly four years now. Every morning I wake up knowing I am safe from violence and stalkers; no police banging on my door. Me and my cats are no longer frightened by the loud music, violent screaming and smashing of furniture from my neighbours.
“One of the finance officers at Grand Union knew I still had debts from living off my credit cards. Whenever I called her in tears to say I couldn’t make the rent, she would always calm me down and work out a payment plan. Eventually I told her the truth about how I was living; that sometimes I had no money left for food, no money for oil for the heating, no money for an unexpected vet’s bill.”
Jeannie borrowed money from a friend until it became difficult for her to help too. When one of Jeannie’s cats died, she blamed herself for not being able to afford the insulin the cat needed. She lived in fear of a bill coming through the door that would mean being unable to feed her cats. Forced into an IVA (individual voluntary arrangement) to pay off her debts, Jeannie knew she had no credit or overdraft facility available to her any more. By then, Jeannie’s physical health had also deteriorated.
“My mobility had decreased alarmingly and I found I couldn’t stand or stay in a fixed position for longer than 30 minutes or so. A job was out of the question even if an employer decided to overlook the fact that I was in my mid seventies.
“The finance officer arranged for one of her colleagues, a welfare benefits advisor, to talk to me. She also arranged a parcel from the local food bank, for which I was hugely grateful.
“The advisor talked me through applications for attendance allowance and for help to pay my rent. I’d never thought of applying for these before. The advisor, like the finance officer, didn’t judge me. They were so compassionate and made me feel comfortable about applying for benefits. Their knowledge, empathy, calm logic and support reduced my fears so much.
“Because the applications were successful, I’m no longer scared that I won’t be able to buy my cats’ medicine. I can go to the supermarket and not worry that my card will be rejected.
“Now I know I can pay my bills, I have oil for heating and I can feed myself and my cats. And soon I’ll be getting proper prescription glasses again after years of squinting using cheap ones!
“Those two wonderful members of staff changed my miserable existence into a life without fear. I am so very grateful to Grand Union for my lovely bungalow and my garden. I can watch the squirrels and the fox cubs that come to feed, see jays, magpies, crows and jackdaws and listen to the blackbirds and robins that sing to me. I can even see deer in the woods.
“Me and my cats are settled now. We’ve been through so much trauma and now we live peacefully, enjoying a most strange and unexpected condition that we had forgotten about for 10 years – happiness!
“I love my home. This is contentment. This is all because of Grand Union and those two guardian angels.”