If we don’t work out how to look after the elderly, who will look after us?

As our own lives have changed we didn’t adjust to cope with caring for our parents

Share

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)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Consultants - OTE up to £35,000

£15000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Franchise Operations Manager - Midlands or North West

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The position will be home based...

Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent publishing and...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: the Greeks can stay in the euro or end ‘austerity’, but not both

John Rentoul
The old 1,000 Greek drachma notes and current 20 euros  

Greece debt crisis: History shows 'new drachma' is nothing to fear

Sean O'Grady
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue