Opinion: Voluntary groups take the starring role

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

The care my father received in the last two weeks of his life in the local cottage hospital was the equal of the best care I have seen.

But before this he spent miserable weeks in hospital waiting for palliative care to address his symptoms, which don't make breakfast-time reading.

He was trapped between a community team that would accept referrals from the GP only when he was at home and a hospital team that would take referrals from the specialists only when he was an in-patient. Neither would respond to me.

After days of frustration, I struck gold: the phone was answered after two rings. "How is your father now?" she asked as I explained about his heart disease, kidney failure and advanced prostate cancer. "How can we help? Would you like to come and see our facilities? We can always arrange a visit at a time to suit you. Bring whoever you would like with you.

Is your mother well enough to come too?" How ironic that the first holistic response in his last days came from the woodland burial site at which he had asked to be interred, among the downland he loved.

The Sustainability Centre, part of the Earthworks Trust (info@earthworks-trust.com) came up trumps once again when my mother died suddenly three weeks ago, with the same warm and personal response to her request to be buried beside my father, in a funeral carried out by the family. Although a voluntary organisation took the starring role, there have been other heroes in the public sector. The coroner, the registrar and the probate registry all acted quickly and sensitively, liaising with me to help move along the complexities that follow a sudden death. The mortuary technician ensured her poor old body was treated with the same dignity she expected in life.

The villain of the piece is my mother's bank, which stands to earn from her frozen account until I sort out her little estate. Three people tried to mislead me about my right as executor to settle her affairs with her money. This is compounded by the difficulty of all calls being routed through a centre in Bangalore, where call-handlers have great difficulty in visualising the situation in Gosport. Even having reached agreement with the local branch, the processing centre takes weeks to produce a cheque for the fees to register her will. The mean incompetence of this great leviathan makes me feel voluntary bodies have much to teach the commercial sector - and, I wonder, how much to learn?

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