I first met James and his wife Laura when I moved to Madrid in 2000. James was a successful photographer and his wife an artist whose watercolours and etchings of Iberian sceneries were sold around the world. Both were in their 60s, independently minded, with a lively outlook on life and seemingly a million miles away from needing any form of assistance from anybody -least of all financial.
They had both independently left England when young to seek fame and fortune in the new world. There they met, married and thrived. As the heady days of the 80s came to end they decided to cash in their chips, sell up their home, buy a boat and sail the seas. Live the dream and live life. After all they had money in the bank and both had skill sets that they could use anytime and anyplace they chose. The world was their oyster.
After several years they eventually found themselves in Spain. They liked what they saw and decided to stay, enjoy the warmer climate and try a new challenge. At first things were fine; they sold the boat and rented a fine apartment in town. James found work – not as much as before but enough to have a good living and Laura set to painting which was critically acclaimed and sold well. Though they were earning it was a challenge – a different language, different culture and a very different way of being.
That in itself was not going to stop them but in 2005 Laura suffered a series of mishaps and accidents that put her in hospital and from which her recovery was slow. This meant James was unable to work as much as he would have liked as he had to take care of his wife. Then the global crisis hit Spain and the work started to dry up. Old clients were unwilling or unable to pay his fees. Laura´s condition worsened and they made the decision to leave Madrid and live on the coast. It would be cheaper to rent and cheaper to live – they also felt that all the cultural barriers they had encountered would disappear and the work would pick up. They put their last savings to move down and rent a modest apartment over-looking the sea where at least Laura could recover and escape the harshness of the Castilian winter and benefit from the warmer climate.
At the beginning it seemed to work but the recession had already hit and money was hard to come by. The savings were drying up on rent and increasingly on healthcare. James was spending more and more time nursing his wife and less and less time on making a living. Then things went from bad to worse when Laura´s worsening condition led to a fall at home which rendered her comatosed and bed ridden. To his horror he discovered that she was outside the scope of public healthcare in Andalucia and no hospital would treat her or take her. He had no choice but to use the remaining savings on private healthcare and face the terrible reality that, after having sold their business and brought an ocean going yacht and sailed the world, they were now facing penury and possibly eviction. Götterdämmerung.
A lifetime of independence had come to an end and a realisation that there was no way out; no way to help or support his wife with whom he had shared his adult life. It was at this point that I became involved looking for a solution and in the following weeks I looked at what was a dire and heartbreaking personal situation. I wanted to help but for the life of me I didn’t know how and could only imagine the pain and suffering of both as they faced each terrible day -and wonder how anybody could cope.
One of my discoveries was the British Benevolent Fund and the financial lifeline it lent to those who had no other recourse. It seemed that he would benefit and I called and told him that this would appear to provide at least a part solution to the financial side – he could make an application – maybe pay for a nurse or a adapted bed and then he could at least work. I was wrong of course; James was far too proud and independently minded to accept this and it was not pursued. What he wanted was the tools to do this himself and that is what he managed to do. He managed by his means to get the Andalucian government to admit his wife to a hospice where still she remains; looked after and cared for by professional medical staff and where he visits each day. He has returned to work and has been able to resume his life only this time – alone.
James didn’t want the BBF but there are many others who do and when they reach out it is for us to pull together for one of our own. The UK population in Spain continues to rise and to age with a steady stream of people seeking a better life, there are many who struggle and many who cannot cope and who have nowhere else to turn.
That´s why I volunteered and why I feel the BBF has and will have an increasing role to play in the welfare of British people in Spain.