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The lady, and the dog, that I can’t get out of my mind


How debt touches every aspect of our lives

About five years ago I was out visiting one of our Citizen's Advice Bureaus (CABs).

There was a lady in for a money advice appointment, which she kindly let me sit in and observe. She was about 70. Small, neat, peppery, with a no-nonsense attitude.

She wasn’t someone who was used to asking for help, but since the death of her husband the previous year she’d got herself into serious debt. So much so that she could no longer afford to keep her pet dog and had had to give it away.

The money adviser and I were both dog lovers, so we sympathised. She softened a bit and showed us a photo from her purse of a scrappy wee mongrel, wriggling happily in the arms of her beaming husband.

The two had simply adored each other, she said. Every day he’d take it out to the little beach near their home and throw an old ball which the dog would bound after like it was the juiciest bone ever. She’d watch them though the big bay window at home till they came back, breathless, soggy, sandy, happy.

Then as the cancer ravaged his body she watched as his throws gradually became weaker, but the dog still trotted faithfully off to retrieve the ball. It understood, she said, and wanted to show its devotion to the end.

And when the end came, she and the dog had sustained each other. She never took it to the little beach – that was their place - but they’d sit together at that big window, missing him together. Those were the moments when she most felt her husband’s presence. His laughter, his smell. 

But now the dog needed a special diet, and vet bills she couldn’t afford. She’d tried – hence the debt. But she knew that couldn’t go on. And the dog’s health came first, so re-homing it was the only solution.

That decision had been hard though. “I feel as though I’ve let them both down,” she said quietly. I glanced at our adviser: like me he was trying – failing - to find the right words.

But she saved us, suddenly slapping the table and snapping into practical mode again. “However,” she said firmly. “Nae enough bawbees – it’s that simple. Now, can you help me with this debt?”

And of course, we did. It’s what we do. The adviser contacted her creditors, got them to freeze the interest and accept a re-payment plan of instalments she could afford. So, job done. In many ways a routine case – the sort of result that CABs deliver every day. And yet, all these years later this one still sticks in my mind. 

A few weeks ago, we published some research showing the impact the cost of living crisis is having on people. This included the finding that 10% of people in Scotland have cut spending on their pets. We received one negative email about this: “you should focus on human suffering, not animals.” With respect, this completely misses the point.

Because yes, when we published those figures, I was thinking about that wee mongrel, and hoping it found its way to a loving owner.

But mainly I was thinking about the lady. And how giving it away made her feel like she’d lost her husband all over again.

Derek Mitchell is chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland.

This column was first published in the Herald.



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