A devoted son tried to smother his frail 93-year-old mother with a pillow after struggling to cope with her costly care home fees. Ronald Barham, 74, was described as a ‘caring, dutiful and attentive only son’ who visited his mother Elsie every day.
But the financial burden of her fees as well as the responsibility of caring for his wife Joan, 76, who has dementia, became too much for the father-of-two, a court heard.
The retired businessman, who yesterday pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of his mother, said he had feared he could lose his own home because of the fees.
He admitted he ‘snapped’ while visiting his mother at Quaker House care home in New Milton, Hampshire, on March 7.
As they sat in the communal lounge he grew frustrated as she complained to him about her fellow residents.
Barham, once a successful businessman who designed and sold stationery, took his mother to her bedroom and closed the curtains. He then tried to strangle her with his bare hands, forcing her dentures down her throat.
He told the petrified widow ‘I’ve got to do this now’ as he snatched a pillow from her bed and began to smother her. Describing the tragic incident to Winchester Crown Court, Kerry Maylin said: ‘It was not as easy as perhaps he had initially thought. Mrs Barham struggled so he put one of his hands over her neck and began to squeeze it hard.
‘His mother thought she was “a goner”. Barham tried to push [her dentures] down her throat, where they became lodged.’
Mrs Barham desperately tried to trigger the personal alarm around her neck, but Barham ripped it off. ‘She said she thought she was going to die. She thought it all lasted 30 minutes but in reality it lasted only a few minutes,’ the barrister said.
It was then that a staff member knocked on the door to say Barham’s taxi had arrived and he replied ‘thank you’. But they grew suspicious after hearing a noise similar to someone being sick and entered the room with a colleague.
Together they pulled him off the frail woman who had blood around her mouth and was ‘blue and hyperventilating’, the court heard.
‘She was extremely distressed, she could not believe what her son had done,’ the barrister added.
Barham, who had previously discussed his concerns over the fees with the manager of the home Paul Abbott, was taken to the home’s office and told him: ‘I have tried to strangle my mother’ and said it was because of the ‘financial situation’.
Barham was given a hospital order under the Mental Health Act by Judge Guy Boney QC, who said the case was tragic and the pressure to pay for care was ‘far from easy’.
Mrs Barham had moved from Southampton into the not-for-profit residential home, which charges up to £34,000 a year, to be closer to her only son. Barham had suffered a stroke, had diabetes and was struggling to travel to see his mother each day from his £250,000 bungalow in Barton-on-Sea, Hampshire while also caring for his wife.
The court heard how his mother, who was frail but in good health and largely independent, had found it difficult to adjust to the home and complained to her son during his visits each morning.
‘Ronald Barham has been a dedicated son of Elsie for all of his life. It’s clear they had a close relationship,’ Miss Maylin said.
‘Her only outlet for her complaints was to her son, who was taking on the financial cost of that care.’
Barham had spoken to Mr Abbott about his concern about how much longer he could pay the fees and had been directed to the adult social services team, the court heard. But they ‘refused to assist’ him.
Jonathan Simpson, defending, said: ‘Being the only son – a son who felt his mother wholly depended on him – the onerous task of having to fund his mother’s care was recognised by the defendant as something that was going to go on and on. It was a snapping; irrational and wholly inconsistent with his love of his mother.’
The attack was ‘an aberration’ and Barham, who has no previous record, came from a loving family who hoped he could be reconciled with his mother, he added.
‘He comes from an extremely professional, articulate and communicative family, some of whom are lawyers as well,’ he said.
The judge said: ‘This is about the most tragic and upsetting case that can be imagined between a son and his mother. It’s not often a man pleads guilty to the attempted murder of someone he has known for 74 years and certainly not his own mother.
‘You were handicapped by the feeling that the burden of her discontent fell squarely on you.’
‘The financial situation (for funding care) is very far from easy. It’s difficult not to feel a good deal of sympathy.’
The home said Mrs Barham had ‘recovered’. Social services are now paying her care fees and it is believed she wishes to reconcile with her son.