What a way to treat the widow of one of our greatest war heroes

Douglas Bader’s anguished family reveal the shocking neglect his wife Joan has suffered in TWO care homes

  • Joan Bader has been in four age homes
  • One failed to give her medical attention when she suffered stroke
  • Another left her in soaked sheets
  • Her daughter Wendy is appalled by level of care in some homes

By Kathryn Knight


Walking into her elderly mother’s care home, Wendy McCleave was shocked by the sight that confronted her. It had been a matter of days since she had last visited, yet in that time her mother’s condition had deteriorated horrifically.

Sunken-eyed, with a livid bruise on her temple, she seemed unable to speak or swallow.

‘I thought she was dying,’ Wendy recalls. ‘It was the most horrendous shock.’

In fact, her mother Joan, the widow of Sir Douglas Bader, Britain’s most famous wartime pilot whose story was told in the film Reach For The Sky, had suffered a stroke. Yet no one at her residential care home had taken action, despite the attempts by one nurse, Adeline Dalley, to seek medical treatment.   

Zest for life: Joan with war hero Douglas Bader on their wedding day

Zest for life: Joan with war hero Douglas Bader on their wedding day

Only after Wendy’s intervention was Lady Bader taken to hospital, where doctors told her daughter that she was dehydrated and severely malnourished. Wendy was told she must not allow her mother to return to that care home.

The distressing incident is just one of many painful episodes Wendy and her two younger siblings, Michael and Jane, have encountered ever since they made the agonising decision to seek residential care for their mother, now 95

In the three years since leaving her cottage, Lady Bader has been moved into four expensive residential facilities, none of which provided the kind of end-of-life care we’d all want for our parents.

Her latest move happened only this year, when Wendy found Lady Bader in bed in wet sheets one afternoon.

She was no longer in charge of her own destiny. She became quite depressed

Her experiences led Wendy to contribute the foreword to a new book, written by the palliative nurse who had recognised her mother’s stroke symptoms in the second care home, in the west of England.

In her book, Mrs Dalley, 34, reveals how she felt compelled to turn whistleblower after witnessing abuse upon abuse within the care system.

During her 16 years as a carer she has witnessed staff turning up drunk and charts being falsified.

On one occasion she was told by a manager not to be tactile with residents because they were ‘wages not friends’.

She and Mrs Bader’s family are now firm friends, united by a desire to highlight the iniquities in the system.

‘I could never have imagined what I would go through with my mother,’ Wendy, 62, says now.

‘Sir Douglas, my stepfather, believed passionately in fairness, and went out of his way to help and encourage vulnerable people.

‘I have no doubt he would be horrified at the treatment meted out to some of the most vulnerable in our society, and that he would have approved wholeheartedly of Adeline’s effort to make this a thing of the past by writing this book.’

Like many, Wendy has struggled to witness the transformation of her once feisty, robustly independent mother into a frail, vulnerable invalid.

It was her mother’s spirit which first attracted Douglas Bader, who became Joan’s second husband in January 1973 when she was 52 and he was 61.

‘They met playing golf and the relationship developed from there,’ Wendy recalls. ‘Mother had so much spirit. She was totally fearless, outgoing and great fun, and I think Douglas liked that very much.Died age 72: Sir Douglas Bader would have been appalled by the treatment his widow received at two care homes

Died age 72: Sir Douglas Bader would have been appalled by the treatment his widow received at two care homes

‘We loved him, too. A lot of people apparently found him abrasive, but really you had to be tough to endure what he did. In actuality, he had a very gentle streak.’

Following their marriage, the couple divided their time between the home Douglas had shared with his first wife Thelma in London and a farmhouse near Newbury. At both, Joan, who had worked as a nurse during the war, was fond of throwing parties.

‘My mother always loved cooking and was incredibly sociable, probably too much so for Douglas’s liking,’ recalls Wendy with a smile.

‘He was quite a peaceful person, but he’d arrive home to find it full of people. He’d say: “Suffering cats! Haven’t you lot got homes to go to?”‘

Their contented union was brought to an end in 1982 when Douglas died from a heart attack at the age of 72.

It was obvious Ma wasn’t right. She had a huge bruise on her head – we never did find out why

‘It was very sad for my mother,’ says Wendy. ‘She was only in her 60s and still in very good physical health.’

She remained so until her 80s. A first stroke at home in 2007 changed everything, however, leaving Lady Bader with severely impaired mobility.

‘When we finally got her to hospital and the doctor told her she’d had a stroke, all she said was: “I thought I probably had,”‘ says Wendy.

‘Her stoicism was immense. She’s from that generation who are verging on pathological about not making a fuss about their health, and she was almost phobic about visiting the doctor or hospital.’

She did, however, require extra help. Initially, she had carers two or three times a day, with Wendy and her sister taking turns to stay at the farm to help out.

In time it became clear that this care package was not enough.

‘Her farmhouse was too remote, and Jane and I had to get back to our lives, so we moved her to a small cottage in the village, and paid for a live-in carer,’ says Wendy.

But at thousands of pounds a month, it was simply unaffordable long term. Reluctantly, in February 2011 her children took the decision to put their mother into a care home.

‘Breaking the news was very hard,’ Wendy says quietly. ‘As a mother you’re used to making decisions that will affect the lives of your children, then suddenly you are doing it for a parent and it has huge consequences.Joan with her grandson: Her daughter wonders how the elderly without family looking out for them fare in care homes

Joan with her grandson: Her daughter wonders how the elderly without family looking out for them fare in care homes

‘You feel the most enormous responsibility and the guilt is immense. Ma was stoic, as ever. She didn’t want to do it but knew it was unavoidable.’

Lady Bader’s main distress was the prospect of parting from her much loved pets, Hovis, a Labrador, and a tortoise named Terry.

Her children’s worries were eased, at least, by finding a care home they felt would suit Lady Bader well.

‘It was rather like a country house which we felt would be the right sort of fit,’ recalls Wendy. The monthly fees of thousands of pounds were, fortunately, covered by Sir Douglas’ pension.

‘But she didn’t take to it,’ says Wendy. ‘It was rather too stuffy for her and very quiet, and I think mother felt very isolated.’

After further research, Wendy and her siblings chose another local care home which seemed a marked contrast. At £600 a week it cost slightly less than the previous one, although still a vast sum.

‘It was rather informal, in a nice way. They had animals there, which was unusual, but we knew Ma would love that,’ says Wendy. ‘We all loved it at first. Among the care workers was Adeline, who greeted Ma on her arrival.’

Initially, Lady Bader seemed to settle well. But as the months went by, the home’s care regime seemed increasingly shambolic.

I think they were just overstretched and couldn’t cope. Nonetheless, it wasn’t – and isn’t – good enough

One day, Wendy, who visited her mother every week, along with her siblings, arrived to find Lady Bader clearly in discomfort.

‘When I asked her what was wrong she said her ribs were sore. I asked one of the carers what had happened, and she said: “Oh, yes, she fell off her chair and may have banged her side.”

‘These things are going to happen, of course. But I should have been told. Good communication is vital.’

Not long afterwards, Wendy paid another visit and noticed her mother was missing her front teeth.

‘I asked Ma what had happened and she couldn’t remember. I spoke to a care worker who said: “Oh, I hadn’t noticed.”

I know they were very short-staffed. At times there were only a few staff to look after around 24 residents, some of whom needed a very high level of care. But this still wasn’t acceptable.’

When, around three months into Lady Bader’s stay, the lift broke, Wendy was horrified to learn residents had been kept in their rooms for three days.

‘Upstairs residents like my mother were effectively imprisoned in their rooms. I noticed a marked change in her after that,’ she recalls. ‘It was a horrible reminder to her that she was no longer in charge of her own destiny. She became quite depressed.’

There were other changes, too.

‘I noticed she would apologise a lot. If she needed anything she would say: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” which wasn’t like her at all. Clearly she felt she had to justify whatever she was asking for, even if it was just a drink.’

Then, in late February, Wendy arrived to find her mother in noticeable decline. ‘I couldn’t put my finger on it but she seemed slower. She was very sleepy and slurring a little.

‘I raised my concerns with a carer who told me she was just having a sleepy afternoon. And, of course, you tend to trust them – they’re there all the time whereas you only see your relatives on visits, even if they are frequent.’

Only later would Wendy find out that Adeline, on a final shift before a week off, had raised concerns about Joan with the home’s manager, suggesting they order an ambulance as she believed that Joan had had a stroke, only to be told that it wasn’t necessary and they would wait a couple of days.

During this time, Lady Bader’s condition deteriorated dramatically. When Wendy arrived for another visit a few days later, she was greeted with a far grimmer scene.

‘It was obvious Ma wasn’t right. She had a huge bruise on her head – we never did find out why – she couldn’t swallow so wasn’t eating or drinking properly and had lost a lot of weight. She looked terrible.’

This time Wendy spoke directly to the manager, who tried to reassure her nothing was seriously wrong.

‘She said Ma had just had a funny turn, but they would look after her. I remember she said: “You know she hates hospitals,” and even told me that perhaps my mother wanted to die.’

Appalled, Wendy took matters into her own hands.

‘I phoned my mother’s GP, who immediately told me she should be taken to hospital.’

Lady Bader went to Salisbury Hospital by ambulance, where Wendy was told her mother had suffered a mini-stroke which had affected her swallowing function. She was severely dehydrated and malnourished. ‘I felt awful,’ Wendy says quietly. ‘They are so vulnerable and you feel you’ve let them down.’

Adeline, meanwhile, had returned to work to find out that Lady Bader had been admitted to hospital.

She phoned Wendy to say the care home had forbidden her from calling an ambulance previously.

It breaks your heart. It is also all too easy when elderly people are confused to be convinced they’re imagining things

‘She begged me not to send my mother back there, though, of course, I had no intention of doing so.’

Lady Bader remained in hospital for ten days, during which time Wendy made a formal complaint to the Care and Quality Commission. It went nowhere.

‘The police were very sympathetic, but unless you can prove intent, which is almost impossible, and connect it to one person, then essentially you don’t have a case.

‘I don’t believe there was intent. I think they were just overstretched and couldn’t cope. Nonetheless, it wasn’t – and isn’t – good enough.’

She also had to find her mother a place in another care home – her third.

‘This home, which cost more than £1,000 a week, brought her back from being bedridden to her old self and I’ll always be grateful for that.’

But this contented period ended six months ago with the arrival of a new manager. ‘The atmosphere seemed to change almost overnight,’ says Wendy.

When she arrived to find her mother in bed for the night, in wet sheets, at just 4pm, and learned she had been essentially ‘tidied away’ a couple of times when visitors had been shown round, she felt she had no choice but to move her.

‘We’d thought this home was a home for life, but no. Ma had lost a lot of confidence and was having nightmares.’

Adeline Dalley has written a book addressing the problems of inadequate care

At the start of the year, Lady Bader was moved to another home, where she appears to be settling well. She is lucky to have three loving children who have her best interests at heart – something many elderly people cannot count on.

‘What about the ones without family and friends to look out for them?’ asks Wendy. ‘For them, the carers are their voice. Adeline loves her residents like family, but that is, alas, all too rare.

‘It breaks your heart. It is also all too easy when elderly people are confused to be convinced they’re imagining things.’

That’s why Wendy is speaking out, in the hope of an honest, national debate on end-of-life care.

‘It’s the last gift we can give to somebody, whatever their situation,’ she says. ‘I just hope that Adeline’s wonderful book can help us focus on this vital issue and address the problems of inadequate care and even abuse that can happen.’

She is consoled by the fact that, for now at least, her mother seems reasonably settled in her new home.

‘It’s early days, but all seems well,’ she says. But after everything her mother has been through, Wendy knows it is not something she can take for granted.

Behind Those Care Home Doors, by Adeline Dalley (The Choir Press, £8.99). To order a copy, visit amazon.co.uk.   

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