Reflections in Times of Covid: Communication and ‘Aloneness’

In the second of two articles, SCR President Richard Roberts is thinking about communication.

For all my 40 years as a solicitor I have dealt with elderly clients and the issues of old age, death and bereavement.  I, and my firm, are well used to such matters but never had we faced a pandemic.  

We all know the value of face-to-face meetings, particularly in the work that I do but with Covid and work from home regimes came a plunge into a world of Zoom or Teams calls. I know from my own staff just how difficult they found this transition to a unique style of communication. It was not for any technical reason but just the actual inability to be in the same room as one’s client and look into their eyes. Chatting to fellow solicitors, we all found the lack of physical meetings especially hard to bear.   

One of the earliest lessons I learnt was never to invite the recently bereaved into the office for the first meeting post death. My late senior partner John Gedye used to say, ‘for the first meeting always try to meet the family, especially if it was a widow without children, in their own home.’ The three feet width of your mahogany office desk can be as traumatic as if it were the recent deceased’s lidded coffin itself.   

Communication has always been a fascinating subject to me. As part of my degree, I studied public administration – the art of decision-making, and then communicating those decisions within a civil service/elected government scenario. I learnt much from my eminent tutors Professor Richard Chapman and Dame Enid Russell-Smith. They often remarked that real decision-making occurs with actual eye contact, and that contact occurs not in the formal setting of committees and board meetings but in informal, often impromptu, meetings.   

Thinking of my days as a student with the Penrith firm of Little and Shepherd it was there that I really learnt about the art of effective communication. Lake District farmers care not for a detailed discussion on legal cases or rules. They do want you to look at their pedigree Holsteins, for you to exclaim ‘eee, they’re grand beasts’, and to understand that to them they are like surrogate children, and the farm succession is not just about figures on a balance sheet and tax saving.   

The first problem my firm and I had following the first lockdown in March 2020 was a readjustment in how we communicated with our clients. Suddenly we were faced with an airborne disease and with the clear public-health message that we need to minimise interpersonal contact. For practices like mine where 75% of our work revolves around wills, estate administration and the consequent house sales this immediately presented problems, not all of which could be resolved by a Zoom or Teams call.   

Risk management became the dominant conversation. It can be straightforward to spot potential undue influence or duress when sitting opposite clients giving will instructions, but it is so much harder when taking instructions over Zoom. For us, we thought this would be a temporary pattern of work and we would go back to significant face-to-face meetings once the pandemic had run its course. As it is turning out we are seeing more clients asking for Zoom interviews. For existing clients who we know well this is not a problem but managing risk where one is asked to act for newly introduced clients, particularly where it is a blended family, raises significant concerns.   

Certainly, I found the inability to see clients face-to-face heightened my secondary trauma. Never have I written as many bereavement letters as I have in the past 2 years, and yet it all seemed so unreal as we were not able to see people. In every case these were clients that I had known over 30 years, some were parents of school friends who I have known all my life. The inability to see the family in person became a significant trauma. I know my team felt the same. From this we have learnt that it is even more important within the office team to communicate our feelings and to support each other.

Dealing with the bereaved is unlike any other solicitor/client interaction. The bereaved grieve at different rates of time, in diverse ways, and in my view require an extra level of compassion from us, their professional advisers. It has always seemed to me that those of us who do this work regularly should have a mandatory training in the whole grieving process. It also seems to me that there should also be training within our firms on how our teams can support each other.  

As the weeks went on though we became concerned about those clients of ours who fell in the AWOC category – the adults without children. Traditionally my firm has had a sizable number of AWOCs as clients. Practising in a small town one would often see clients outside the office setting. Lockdown stopped all that.  

Gradually as time went on various AWOC clients would come to mind and I would wonder how they were coping. I quickly realised that for many of them there was no obvious person being their ‘support bubble’ as AWOCs are usually very independent and self-sufficient. Some were increasingly vulnerable as they stayed isolated and relied on internet shopping. Some were new to the whole concept and easily became prey to scams.   

Covid accentuated the ‘aloneness.’  As an only child of only children after my mother died, I felt this overwhelming sense of aloneness – not loneliness as I have wonderful circle of friends. Like many I started to explore the family tree. My maternal grandparents had 12 and 13 siblings respectively, yet here was I – alone.  

Covid isolation made my sense of aloneness much worse and – like many I retreated even more to social media and the internet. I began to explore the vulnerability of AWOCs and I hope you will permit me a small diversion at this point.  

We have over 1.5M AWOCs, by 2030 that will be 2m. In the LGBT community it is estimated that 90% are AWOCs, and within that group many, like me, are HIV+ and face specific health and care issues as we age, alone.   

Currently 92% of all unpaid care is provided by close family members. Worryingly AWOCs are 25% more likely to go into residential care, and at an earlier age and lower level of dependency. Generally, AWOC’s have poorer health and a life expectancy of up to 2 years below those who are parents. A quick Google search brings up even more gloomy news articles about the loneliness and solitude experienced within the elderly LGBT community. In the next 20 years there will be unprecedented numbers of AWOC’s reaching old age, and many of those will be LGBT. How will they be supported? 

AWOC’s will have a greater reliance on formal care services but at a time when such services are under intense pressure. For many reasons residential care homes, private providers and voluntary organizations are all struggling to cope.  Ageing LGBT AWOCs who need care and support face significant barriers including having no-one obvious to advocate for them, or mediate with health and care services, or curate their care in an appropriate manner for them.   

Some will also still feel a stigma attached to being both old and gay.  We must not forget that male homosexual decriminalization only happened in 1967 and there are still men born in the 1930’s and 1940’s for whom gay pride is still a step too far.  Even for those of us who are out proud and aging increasing interaction with care providers can bring its own problems.    

As a solicitor, I have seen tragic cases of vulnerable AWOCs being systematically abused – usually financially. It can be as low level as the neighbour who adds the odd pound or two to the vulnerable adults shopping bill each week as a ‘perk.’  At the extreme it can be the ‘gardener/handyman’ who exerts undue influence on the vulnerable adult, so they make them the prime beneficiary in their will. Indeed, I had one case where the handyman moved into the elderly persons home, imprisoned them in the spare bedroom and ‘made merry’ with their possessions and savings….and cars! Equally I have seen elderly AWOCs ‘buy’ companionship, often by forming relationships with much younger partners from developing countries.  That raises all sorts of legal and cultural issues.  

Communication is always important and those dealing with elderly clients may need to have some honest conversations with their AWOC clients, just as we may need a greater understanding of just what drives the AWOC, especially the LGBT AWOC, to make some of the decisions we do.   

Never more though was honest communication more vital than it was in times of Covid and we all had to be more conscious of how we were expressing things. We found clients apprehensive, anxious, more prone to over-reacting to matters. It was time to take care in crafting our communications.    

Over the years I have seen some shockingly bad and at times deliberately provocatively written letters. There are certainly letters that I have written that with hindsight could have been better expressed or better timed.  

I have always tried to follow the rule of putting myself in the mind of the reader of my letters. Have I set the right tone and overall message? Could I have been less strident (or even vitriolic) in my tone? Have I dashed something off simply to get it off my desk, or to get it in before a Friday 5 pm deadline so that it is on someone’s else’s desk for the weekend?   

Is it sensible to have crucial letters arriving with the opposition team at times when they can and will inflict serious emotional damage and be counter-productive to reconciliation?   

Within the non-contentious side of my work, I and my team try to avoid writing significant letters to bereaved family members on or around the first anniversary of the deceased’s death, a significant birthday, or the wedding anniversary.   

I teach the simple lessons like do we really need to head the letter ‘Your late husband’s estate’?  Have I broken down the detailed letter into bite sized easy to digest paragraphs?  If I am asking clients for instructions, do I give them a yes/no option? How would you like to be treated if this were your relative’s estate being contested or administered?    

I believe we should respect the recipients of our communication and reflect on its content before sending it. In my view we need to temper the necessity to act strong with an ability to send empathetic correspondence and hasten a settlement rather than deep in it. Life in times of Covid taught us all to be more empathetic.   

But enough of our communication skills, what did you read in times of Covid that resonated with you ? 

Covid gave us time to tackle that TBR pile before it toppled over into a deluge of book buying guilt across our floors. Come now, we must all have that pile of interesting books bought and put to one side ‘To Be Read’ or am I the only one?

Here are three that I read in Covid isolation :

The first is Margareta Magnussen’s little book on ‘Dostadning’ – the Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning’. Dostadning is the Swedish term for the process of shedding unnecessary things to make our lives as orderly as possible before they come to their natural close. I think we will all identify with the chapter ‘If It Was Your Secret’!     

It has certainly encouraged me to embark on authoring my own book which is provisionally entitled ‘Please Die Tidily’. I leave it to readers to decide whether there should be a comma separating those three words and if so where!    

In more serious vein, I recommend Kathryn Mannix book ‘With the End in Mind.’ Kathryn is a palliative medicine pioneer and her book talks about intimate questions on the process of dying but more importantly she makes a compelling case for the therapeutic power of approaching death not with trepidation but with openness clarity and understanding.     

Lastly my real ‘must read’ is Richard Holloway’s book ‘Waiting for the Last Bus’. Richard offers some significant insights. For me though the key message was when he spoke of the inability to forgive which imprisons us in the past. In so doing it kills and buries the future and all the consequences that flow from that. An ‘inability to forgive’ is often the spectre at many family funerals.  

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