Christina Patterson: It's not isolation in old age that worries me

We may be lonely, miserable and scavenging in skips, but we won't be bored – because we'll be working

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The other day, when I got home from work, I tried to put a bottle of pinot grigio in the washing machine. Well, it made a nice change to the time I tried to put my book in the fridge. And, indeed, the time I left the keys to my new car hanging out of the boot. I am, it seems, to quote the Jamaican poet, Lorna Goodison, "becoming my mother".

In Stockholm, we spent hours with the police, filling out forms about the theft, at the hotel breakfast buffet, of my mother's wad of Swedish kroner. Which we later found in her suitcase. Last time it happened, she didn't call the police. From the window of the train she had got on at Clandon, she just watched the navy handbag on the station platform fade into the distance. This being Surrey, she got it back.

For the most part, however, my mother's mind is still in relatively fine fettle. It's her body that's the problem: the dodgy heart and high blood pressure and glaucoma and cataracts and sore hip and sore heels. Meals are accompanied by big piles of pills. Old age, as my great aunt used to say, is not for sissies.

If my mother and her friends are battling the body's decline on a daily basis, and fuelling the profits of the pharmaceutical industry (over 60s, according to new figures, are racking up at least 42 prescription items each a year), then at least they're doing it in quite nice houses with quite nice pensions. My mother's life is an exhausting round of reading groups, coffee parties and lunches. Sometimes, like Greta Garbo,she says she just wants to be "left alone".

And then there's us. Her wonderful offspring. We may have disgraced the family name by failing to produce little Pattersons for her to pet, cuddle and display on the mantelpiece but we do, at least, visit her – even take her on the odd mini-break, the odd little holiday. We are rewarded with a mother's love and, sometimes, cheques. The half of my father's index-linked civil service pension that she received when he died is enough to pay for lunches, and bribes. It may even be enough to pay for gas.

The inconvenient truth, however, is that I am not becoming my mother. While our minds and bodies might be set on a similar trajectory, our finances are not. I am not married to a civil servant – or, indeed, anyone. By the time I have paid for the final-salary pensions of the police, the fire service, local government and the NHS and the (unsplit) mortgage and the (unsplit) utilities, there's not much left for a bag of Doritos, let alone for the bank vault of gold bullion otherwise known as a pension. According to my annual statements from Norwich Union, my (to me) gargantuan payments will get me a monthly Mars Bar and, perhaps, a Twix.

And in failing to produce the grandchildren my mother yearned for, I have, it seems, made sure that I will indeed be "left alone". If my mother's parturition got her lunches and mini-breaks in her old age, my friends' mothers (some a little older, some a little more infirm and some, sadly, now two sandwiches short of a pensioners' picnic) got them very much more. Not just grandchildren, but regular visits, shopping, taxi services to hospital appointments and, occasionally, granny flats with nursing care attached. My friends – mostly working mothers in their 40s – are exhausted. But blood is thicker than water – particularly for a daughter.

There is, however, one silver lining in the cloud hovering over the soon-to-be-silver-haired. We may be lonely, miserable, and scavenging in skips for the crumbs from the young man's table, but we will not be bored. We won't be bored because we'll be working. The answer to the question posed by the Beatles all those years ago – will you still need me, will you still feed me – is respectively yes and no. Yes, we (the young) need you to pay our pensions. And no, we won't feed you just yet. Sixty-four? A mere stripling! According to Lord Turner, the Government's pensions supremo, we'll soon need to work until we're 70. And that, of course, is not for a nice, index-linked pension, but for the stately sum of £90.70 a week.

Quite who is going to employ us remains, at this stage, vague. Human beings over 60 are rarely regarded as the hottest of properties in the employment market place – or, in our youth-obsessed culture, anywhere else. In the brave, new world of the eternal "portfolio career", working lives that started with a flourish are more than likely to end behind a till.

"When I am an old woman I shall wear purple," wrote Jenny Joseph in her anthem for defiant old age, "Warning". "And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves/ and satin candles, and say we've no money for butter." When I first read it, I thought it was funny. Now, I'm beginning to think that wearing purple might be one of the few pleasures we can afford.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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