MY DAYS have lost structure since the lockdown but I do regularly see my 94-year-old neighbour. She has regular carers coming in but I spend a few hours doing her shopping and washing. Through her I have re-discovered the joys of a 1950s diet: everything in tins with plenty of toffees and crisps, washed down with sugary tea. Three other neighbours help and she’s now a fixture in our lives, sitting there in her chair, listening to thrash metal music in the morning (I think the radio is stuck on the wrong station) and watching TV quizzes in the afternoon.
Because of us and her professional carers her life functions adequately; the best any of us can hope for if we reach her age, which is quite possible.
A report just published by the Office of National Statistics says that the number of women aged 80 without children will triple in the next 25 years, which will mean an enormous increase in the demand for paid care, and a greater likelihood of people having their needs unmet. It’s a scary prospect. It used to be said that people in poorer countries had more children because they wanted someone to look after them in old age. That kind of attitude was once despised in the prosperous, individualistic West but now the truth of it might be coming home to us.
Many of my generation fell out of love with the idea of family and motherhood due to feminism, higher education and career opportunities. But society didn’t really radically change or build structures for the future. Forty-three per cent of over-85s receive care from relatives, mostly women, or friends. People without children are more likely to need formal care than those who have them.
The reputation of care homes did not come out well in the pandemic. In the 1980s I worked in some shockers. The first was closed down and the staff prosecuted for cruelty and neglect. The next was barely better. Residents slept in dormitories and I remember them fumbling with tiny sealed packets of butter and jam at breakfast. There were no home touches and a woman repeatedly calling out for her mother was mocked.
Years later, when I tried to return to that kind of work, I realised I couldn’t stand the smell or the heat. I didn’t get the job as the manager told me he preferred to hire young foreign men who happily worked long shifts for little pay. What I saw then and the treatment of elderly ‘bed-blockers’ in hospitals appalled me.
Do not get old, that’s the clear message of today, unless surrounded by adoring and well-off children. My neighbour does have family. One of my tasks is to buy their Christmas and birthday cards plus generous tokens, but she rarely if ever sees them. Not one since the lockdown. Perhaps we need a new appraisal of family responsibility which seems to have very low priority in the UK.