I worked as a nurse for 50 years but still can’t afford my bills in retirement

‘I was just flat on my face. I didn’t know which way to turn’

In 2019, Thabani Sithole, 73, from London, retired as a nurse after 50 years. She had saved up for her retirement but, like 48 per cent of 50- to 70-year-olds that retired during Covid, she quickly fell into financial hardship (half of older adults who left the workforce during that time have since experienced relative poverty, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies). She was unable to pay her mortgage and her home was about to be repossessed. Here, she tells i about the shame she felt and the stress she endured after a long career.

When I finally retired I had just turned 70. I was working in critical care in the NHS, which was very demanding. In that part of the hospital, you need to run a lot. Six years earlier, I had fallen over and developed osteoarthritis. Over time, that osteoarthritis was beginning to develop into arthritis, so I couldn’t run very fast. Eventually, I was no longer fast enough for critical care. I realised it was time for me to retire.

As a nurse, I have been all over the world. I started working in paediatric intensive care at London King’s College Hospital, and I ended up in Harley Street and The Portland Hospital. I escorted children in my care to Russia on an ambulance plane. I even worked for a prince of Saudi Arabia. I lived in his house which gave me the privilege of rubbing shoulders with the richest in society. I went to Ethiopia with his family, and we visited Cairo.

There was so much wealth there, but I could see money didn’t really buy them happiness. There was so much stress and competition still. I knew that my main goal in life was to have a nice home and be debt free.

For the last 12 years of my career, I worked in paediatric intensive care for the private sector and I managed to save up money for my retirement. My plan was to live off my savings, as well as top it up with some agency work – I wanted to work as an extra and as a plus-size model. The money was good and very promising. I was getting a lot of work, and before long I was going up and down the country. I also had a small state pension, which was £80 a week.

Then, 2020 hit. Nobody knew Covid was coming. I couldn’t get any work as an extra and so I was using up all my savings just to live and pay my mortgage. I was just flat on my face. I didn’t know which way to turn. Before that point, things had been looking good for me, especially when I started doing commercial casting. I had to tell my mortgage lender that I was struggling to pay.

In 2021, things got harder. I was struck down with Covid. I was very fearful for my life. My daughter lived with me and I told her not to take me to the hospital. I was worried that I would die there. A lot of people do when they get to my age.

Now some agencies were offering me work but I couldn’t take up their offers. I was too ill. My daughter nursed me back to health at home but I no longer had any savings to pay my mortgage. The pot had run dry. Then the mortgage lender got in touch and threatened to repossess my home. They were sick of hearing my excuses. I was completely desperate. I had no idea where I was going.

I felt ashamed. I thought people would look down on me. I felt embarrassed that I had somehow mismanaged my life. Because, as a nurse, I was getting well paid. I was travelling with my daughter wherever we wanted to go. Money was not a problem until 2020.

Then my neighbour suggested I get in touch with Age UK. The charity advised that I speak with Independent Age. They showed me that I was eligible for attendance allowance, because my daughter has to care for me because of my arthritis and because I couldn’t work. And then I also learned I was eligible for pension credit.

The charity even helped me with the forms. As an elderly person, I find social media and online forms tricky. I’m not so used to them. This advice helped me get an extra £600 a month, which I didn’t know I was entitled to.

Before the illness and the pandemic, I thought I would be able to finish paying off my mortgage with all the agency work I had coming in. With my little bit of savings as well, I thought I would be fine to retire. But things didn’t work out as I had planned.

I know several people who have been in the same position as me, so I have started to speak out. Now I’m not ashamed. It’s not shameful to be poor and struggling. Many people are struggling, and they are quiet about it. I’m not being quiet any longer.

People suffer alone. I did so out of shame. I didn’t want people to believe that I hadn’t managed my life properly. But nobody can see the future. Health can deteriorate immediately, you may fall or break something. But you can survive. There’s hope out there. Hold on.

As told to Eleanor Peake

If you are retired and struggling with your finances as a result of the pandemic, contact Independent Age, independentage.org or call 0800 319 6789.

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