I’ve spent the past couple of weeks in Kent, organising carers for my dad. Even with my lovely sister doing half of the form filling and worrying (she’s worked in social services so she knows how the system works) it’s still been incredibly stressful. And a very good reason to have more than one child – the burden for an ‘only’ would be practically intolerable.
We don’t like old people very much in this country. We don’t want to look at the reality of dessication and decreptitude too closely and I can see why. It’s terrifying, pitiful, ugly. A possible future. After dad came out of hospital he had to go into a nursing home for a few weeks because neither my sister, nor I could go down to see him immediately. We needed a tranche of time to sort things out properly so we both arranged to take time off work and spend a week with him, organising a longer term solution. While he was in this home, I had an outraged call from a friend of my dad. ‘It’s awful’ he said. ‘The place stinks of urine and it’s full of old people shuffling about. DO SOMETHING.’
‘I have a full time job and a child’ I replied. ‘I can’t come down until next week.’
I rang my sister in tears. She pointed out that while dad’s friend meant well he was a) retired and b) local and c) probably terrified of what his own future would be so was projecting.
I then had a text from the wife of said friend, saying that she was glad I was coming down to ‘sort it out’ as dad was ‘miserable’ and she hoped I would ‘see for myself how dreadful it was’. Another ‘do something’ – the subtext of which was ‘Come Down and Live with Him’.
This assumption that I or my sister would just drop our jobs, our homes, our lives. Better people than me do it but I was not going to pull my daughter out of the school she loved and give up my life. And if I had been a boy I doubt this would be expected of me. Or maybe I was projecting. Or not. I’m Irish and I grew up listening to uncles and aunts telling their daughters, ‘Go and help your mother’ but not their sons.
My sister and I travelled down to Broadstairs, organised a meeting with social services and went to collect dad from this ‘dreadful’ home. It was clean, organised, and most importantly, the staff were caring, and not in that ‘oooh bless his heart’ Patience Strong icky way. It was staffed by young women paid atrociously (The Low Pay Commission has found that 1 in 10 care staff are paid below minimum wage). The corridors smelled, not of urine but shepherds pie and effort. Dad had retreated into a passive child like state, occasionally interspersed with bursts of rage that I remembered well. When he couldn’t find something. When he was frustrated. I thought of him raging at the seagulls who hurled themselves at his rubbish bags before we got him a gull proof bag. ‘Why are they doing this to me!’ he yelled, which made me think of organised gangs of seagulls who arranged their day around annoying the elderly man at no 12 by ripping open his rubbish bags. The tendency to take small setbacks very personally. (Him, not the gulls although I suppose it’s possible).
I’m like that too and it’s upsetting looking at the concentrated, boiled down stock version in my dad. I get anxious about things that haven’t happened yet and I get worked up about small things. How to avoid it? Nobody knows if they’re going to get Alzheimers but we’re all going to get old. So over the next week while my sister and I organised twice a day carers and an emergency alarm system and posted meds and a cleaner and somebody who would keep the fridge filled, I mused on how you can try and avoid the awful business of not becoming a concentrated version of your worst and meanest personality traits. This is what I’ve come up with so far.
1. I think life is about connection – with other people and experiences. Even if you’re a loner and I like being on my own, if you think of the most important moments of your life, they usually involve at least one other person. So to keep ‘young’ – never mind anti-ageing creams, you need to stay connected. I’ve spoken to some of dad’s friends who retired early but kept up interests and relationships with their grandchildren, and made new friends – new connections. There’s a reason why men who have the structure of their work taken away fade and die a few years after retirement.
2. Trying new things. As you get older, you become used to being ok at things and it can be scary to try new stuff. I did a course in television writing a few weeks ago and I don’t really know anything about it. There is something quite nerve wracking about showing up and starting from scratch. And I can be very lazy. But I don’t want to end up dismissing or sneering at anything I don’t immediately grasp because I’m afraid of trying anything new and not being very good at it.
3. Not harking back at the ‘good old days’ which didn’t exist. An elderly lady I know scoffs at this Daily Mail made up utopia saying: ‘What good old days? We had polio, starvation, and domestic violence didn’t exist. Now we have a welfare system. It’s deeply flawed but at least we have one. Children don’t die of measles and we have the Internet. Wonderful! You can get online even if you’re housebound and you have an instant community. Why on earth would anyone want to go back to the old days?’
4. Yoga. You’re only as young as your spine.
5. Always wear nice underwear. Give yourself a bit of self love. And by the same token, unless you want to feel like you’re 68, don’t wear anything from the M&S Per Una range. I mean come on guys! It’s all so FRUMPY!
6. Don’t start a sentence with: ‘I’m too old . . . . ‘