The Saga of Dad and the Gunge Boiler

Or how dementia and a distance of two hundred miles turns boiler breakdowns into a multi-faceted guessing game and a delicate delegation operation!

Recently, my dad’s boiler broke down. It didn’t owe us anything. To our family’s knowledge it had been chuntering along for all of the 30 years dad has owned his house, although the radiators had become distinctly lukewarm over time, and the death rattle when it started up had become ominous. Accurately ominous, as it turned out.

We found out about the breakdown when my sister made one of her regular catch-up phone calls to dad. He told her that the boiler wasn’t working and that he had arranged for British Gas to come out under their Homecare agreement. My sister rang to check, and, to her surprise, she discovered that this was true. However there was a delay of several days and, as dad is 90, has dementia and is severely sight-impaired, my sister did her best tenacious bulldog impression and the nice British Gas people agreed to come out the next day, which was a Friday.

Hereby starts a mysterious tale of information, misinformation and memory loss…

WHAT DAD SAID: The engineer came, needed a part and was coming back on Sunday morning to fit it.

WHAT LOVELY SISTER DID: Phoned dad on Sunday morning to remind him to stay in for the engineer’s visit.

WHAT DAD DID: Went to church. Well you would, wouldn’t you, if it was a choice of that or your boiler being in bits.

WHAT I DID: Rang dad and said: Is your heating working? Dad: I don’t think so. Me: Did British Gas come this morning? Dad: I went to church.

So I rang British Gas who told me that the part they needed (a pump) was not available until Tuesday anyway, and the Sunday visit had been planned to deliver some extra heaters, and that they’d turned up and dad had been out – did I want them to try again?

I turned down their kind offer. Dad would not have been able to work out or remember how to use a heater that he wasn’t familiar with, and he wouldn’t be able to read instructions as he is nearly blind. He would most likely have forgotten to turn it on, or off, or worried about what it was doing there and rung me up to find out.

So, to Plan B. This involved mobilizing some lovely local help. I rang a friendly neighbour and she agreed to go round and check that dad was OK and that the immersion heater was switched on for hot water. I arranged for the care agency to alert the carers to the situation, and for them to put extra blankets on dad’s bed and by his chair in the lounge. Fortunately it was during the warm early autumn spell, so I wasn’t too worried about the cold. I also arranged for the neighbour to go over early on Tuesday morning to ensure that somebody was in, and up, and there to open the door, when the engineer arrived.

TUESDAY: Neighbour came, engineer came, pump fitted but boiler would not work. Full, very expensive, system flush required. Neighbour and engineer agreed to come back on Thursday. After consultation with dad and my sisters, I authorized, as attorney, for the large sum of money to be spent.

THURSDAY: Neighbour came, engineer came. I telephoned dad and said: Is your heating working now? Dad: Yes, I think so. Me: Phew, thank God for that!! I put the telephone down and two minutes later dad’s lovely neighbour phones me: Well the engineers worked really hard (she said) but the system flush knocked out the thermostat and they’ve got to come back tomorrow to replace it.

FRIDAY: Neighbour – way beyond any call of duty – came, engineer came. I telephoned neighbour: Is the boiler working? Yes! Has the immersion heater been switched off? Yes! Have you got yourself a triple gin and tonic and a big pat on the back? Or, at the very least, a nomination for neighbour of the year award…

And so it goes. Dad’s boiler is working wonderfully. It is now blissfully quiet when the heating comes on in the morning, and I no longer need to wear an extra jumper in the lounge. Dad’s lovely neighbour joined us for a concert a few days ago, and we found ourselves immersed in the exuberant cello playing of Steven Isserlis as he joined the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra to play Shostakovich’s amazing Cello Concerto No 1. I hope dad’s neighbour knows how much her kindness and help is valued.

There are an army of lovely people who support dad – some paid, many not – but without them he’d certainly be keeping company with the penguins from the British Gas adverts in their miniature icicle-filled worlds.


Cheesy crumpets in front of the X Factor? That’s about as mad as it got this week!


Wonderful Beeston Oxjam. Wandering the streets between musical and literary treats and venues, bumping into groups of interesting people, and simply drinking in the atmosphere.

© Anne de Gruchy

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