My mother, who is three weeks away from her 100th birthday, had a problem on Wednesdays, until recently. Nancy is certified blind, stone deaf in one ear and unable to walk. Her problem was that on Wednesdays a glitch in the calendar had led to a clash between her fortnightly hair appointment and one of the highlights of her week, playing bowls from her wheelchair. It was, of course, easily fixed and she now takes her afternoon snooze under the hairdryer after the exertions of bowling in the morning. My mother, thank goodness, is one of the lucky ones.
The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, yesterday drew attention to one of the most shaming scandals of our society: the plight of the unlucky ones. These are our forgotten old people, the men and women in extreme old age living lonely and abandoned lives. Some of them are at home with only the television for company, not visited by friends or family, fearful of the dangers of our sometimes lawless streets, uncertain about new neighbours in the shifting kaleidoscope of our modern life where the old certainties no longer pertain.
Others have been consigned to live out their remaining years in so-called “care homes”, places where nobody cares and nothing could be further from the warm concept of the word “home”. The frightened assertion, “I don’t ever want to go into a home” says all that needs to be said about our understanding of its terrible redefinition in our time. As the awful revelations of abuse have been revealed in recent years, many residential old people’s “homes” would be better categorised as dustbins for our has-beens. An estimated 1,000 cases of abuse or neglect every week ? How can we let that happen ?
One of Mr Hunt’s main points was that what is needed now is a complete change in society’s attitudes towards old people. I do not often find myself writing this about government ministers, but I could not agree with him more. It is a fact that, as we have developed and prospered and relished the benefits of the last century – since indeed the year my mother was born – before there was universal free education, before women had the vote, before the National Health Service; since then we have neglected to nourish our inheritance. We have failed as a society to provide a structure to enable us properly to look after our old people. As our own lives have changed we have made no adjustments to cope with caring for our parents.
And not only have we not worked out how we are going to look after our parents, we have at the same time, on a national level, failed to teach our own children a respect for age and wisdom, the need to love and care for those who are demanding and difficult and unappreciative, and sometimes unkind. There is a distinct difference between the lovely granny of fictional expectation, who smells of lavender and has hidden stores of sweeties, and the demented old thing in a wheelchair, who smells of urine and doesn’t remember your name. But we have an obligation as parents to explain this to the next generation, not least out of self-interest in the prospects for our own dotage. Mr Hunt suggests that other cultures do this better, citing his own family experience in China, but really this is not the point: and the point is that our society here in the UK has not yet caught up with the scale of the problem nor its resolution.
Most of our grandparents did not live long enough to become a problem. Mine all died living within the family. Only one lived into very old age and in his latter years he divided his time between the homes of his six children. He was very welcome in all of them, but who has six children these days who might share the responsibility for Grandpa ? My own father lived at home, without being ill, until his death at 93. My mother lived alone at home thereafter, cooking and ironing and beating everyone at bridge, until 95. And then?
The advances of the last century, the century of Nancy’s life, have been extraordinary. Our life expectancy has increased dramatically with every decade. My mother’s mother died of breast cancer before she was 50. My mother had a malignant cancer – in her arm – about 50 years ago and while this cast a certain gloom over the household for a few months, the progress in treatment since her mother’s death ensured her survival. I didn’t tell her that I had breast cancer two years ago, because she would have regarded it as a death sentence for me, not least because I had a brother who died of cancer in middle age.
Her experience imbues the word with a degree of terror, and she bemoans the loss of her friends and mine from cancer while she lives on. When a friend died recently, aged 92, she said: “Oh dear, what did he die of?” and reproved me when I laughed. “It’s scarcely a laughing matter,” she said, puzzled. She accepted cancer, however, as an explicable cause of death.
Now here she is: 100 years old. Here they all are, all our old people who we have educated, clothed, shod, vaccinated and whose progress we have monitored so that they may live a very long life. Sainsbury’s have been selling birthday cards for centenarians for several years already.
But my mother is, we recognise, phenomenally lucky. She lives in a nursing home which somehow managed to work out what was needed some years ago and has met that need within (and despite) the grinding bureaucracy of an uncaring state. It recognises the needs and nuisances of old age, but looks after people with loving care, understands that elderly people have different requirements from each other and always asserts the importance of treating them with the utmost dignity in all circumstances. They have managed to do this by attempting to reproduce the atmosphere of a real home instead of an institution.
So there is a weekly drinks party. There is sherry before lunch on Sundays (a roast and apple pie). The food is home-cooked and nutritious. There is salad at every meal and sometimes an unexpected treat like olives from the nearby farmers’ market. They grow their own tomatoes and rocket in the greenhouse and in waist-high raised beds. Fresh flowers on the tables come from the garden, too.
There is a resident cat, called Figaro, who is indiscriminate about the many beds available where he might sleep. And the two elderly labradors – who stole everybody’s biscuits but whose deaths this year were much mourned – have been replaced by the joy of a long-legged labradoodle puppy called Bart. There are concerts and films and recitals and games. The residents go on outings by car, bus and wheelchair and there is a weekly swimming group at the local baths. Sometimes they have carry-out Chinese or Indian meals.
The attitudes of our society have a very long way to go to catch up, but this is how it should be done. A consultant who came to see Nancy recently was so impressed, he put his name on the waiting list before he left.
Julia Langdon is a political journalist (and the youngest of Nancy’s children)