Another contribution 

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and is one of the festivals which many secular Jews like to observe by going to synagogue, some also fasting for the traditional 25 hours.

I am one such secular Jew. I don’t “believe in” God in any way, and find the prayers of praise agonisingly long and tedious. There is, however, much else in the liturgy of the Yom Kippur service which is anything but tedious.

Over the dozen or so years that I have been attending these synagogue services, I have been very impressed and moved by an important aspect of the Jewish approach to sin and repentance. In the Reform (i.e. non-Orthodox) prayer-book, the liturgy states categorically that “we have all sinned” – sin being any action that injures another person. There is nobody who hasn’t done wrong to others, and the Jewish way of clearing one’s conscience is to go to the person one has wronged and apologise. There’s no other way out – no confession to a priest, followed by absolution – you have to face your victim directly, as he or she is the only one who can get you off the hook.

Earlier this year I turned 70, which may be the reason why at the Yom Kippur service in late September I was struck for the very first time by another big theme of the service, the repeated references in the liturgy to death. Judaism places very little emphasis on the notion of an afterlife. A “something” after death is mentioned, but not much dwelt on. For a believer, the aim of repentance at Yom Kippur is to be “recorded in the Book of Life”. The stress, however, is not on an afterlife, but on Life, living one’s life as well and righteously as possible.

But we are reminded repeatedly on Yom Kippur of the brevity of life: we are “like grass that grows in the morning, that grows so fresh in the morning, and in the evening fades and dies” (Psalm 90).
“We come from the dust, and end in dust. We spend our life earning our living, but we are fragile like a cup so easily broken, like grass that withers, like flowers that fade, like passing shadows and dissolving clouds, a fleeting breeze and dust that scatters, like a dream that fades away.”

Now we are seventy; Yom Kippur will for me always be as much about the running out of time as about repairing damaged relationships – both thoroughly worthwhile matters for serious attention, and not only on the day set aside for such reflections.

Susan Sutcliffe
October, 2012


Wallander: an Ageing Man

I like Detective stories in books or screen and followed assiduously the Wallander series on TV in all its interpretations. The Troubled Man is Henning Mankell’s last book about Wallander. I loved its mixture of political background, and suspense but above all I appreciated the way the author presents us with what it is like to be an ageing detective.

Wallander is supposed to be 60 and perceives himself as an ageing man.  He shows the subtle changes of normal ageing. He becomes a grandfather, he often thinks of his father and tries to integrate his past and present, he gradually looses responsibilities in his work. His sight is less acute, he worries about the future, he fears death. His daughter worries about him ageing on his own.  Throughout the book  Wallander’s ageing is integrated in the narrative in the most natural way. One perceives that Mankell about the same age as his character is living these changes.

The suspense as in all good detective stories is maintained until the last pages. But  under the suspense of the spy story lies another suspense. At one point Wallander suffers an acute chest pain and he thinks he is having a heart attack. But this episode resolves itself. He, more often, experiences memory lapses. These are not the usual incidents of  forgetting names, or losing objects. These are worrying lapses of losing understanding situations for a chunk of time, not knowing where he is, and why.  For example he does not recognise his house or his dog for a while and in one episode  his  granddaughter as she runs towards him. These symptoms added to Wallander’s health problems i.e .diabetes add to the suspense about his fate. It is in the last pages of the book that there is closure and Mankell writes that after a few years Wallander “slowly descended into a darkness that some years later transported him into the empty universe known as Alzheimer’s disease”.

I do not know the literature of old age, but I found Mankell’s Wallander most interesting as his ageing is put in a general context of the genre. I do not feel  qualified to write about Stewart O’Nan Emily Alone but I must say that I found the novel an incredible accurate and sensitive portrayal of an older woman.

BBC Newsnight Ageing population

Below a contribution from Kata  (63). I did not see the programme and am appalled by the BBC coverage of important issues and Newsnight choice of commentators. For Wolff’s care4care scheme see blog “Social Care in the home” that I posted in November 2011. 

With the news, according to a recent UN report that older people are the fastest growing age group of all, BBC Newsnight last week featured an item on the issue of how to manage old age in the 21st Century.

The UN Report estimated that worldwide there will be in excess of 1 billion 60 year olds by 2022, and 2 billion by 2050.
Whereas in most developing countries, young people are brought up knowing they will be expected to care for older family members, these days in developed countries, this is largely considered to be the responsibility of the State.

A studio discussion followed with Paxman in the chair, featuring Prof Heinz Wolff – founder of Care4Care scheme – George Monbiot, Environmentalist/political activist, with Prof Calestous Juma of Harvard University contributing via video link from the USA.

Care4Care is the ‘brainchild’ of Prof Wolff which he claims offers a solution to the challenge of caring for the increasingly elderly UK population. The rationale is that people should volunteer to care for others, for say 4/5/6 hours per week, in exchange for care when they themselves are older and require care. Care hours will be ‘banked’ to be used in the future. Evidently, there is currently a pilot scheme underway on the Isle of Wight and Wolff hopes that by 2015, there will be one million people doing this.

In response to Paxman’s query re who will ensure that the person now caring will receive it in the future, Wolff conceded that the next generation must be as keen as the present one to provide care. But what if they don’t WANT to, asked Paxman. The Professor expounded further that they simply MUST want to,or they will ‘die in the streets and won’t get there bottoms wiped!’ (The only reference in the discussion to the nitty-gritty of providing personal care!) Paxman looked pretty incredulous at this point!

Over at Harvard University, Prof Juna referred to technological innovations, such as robotics, being employed in the care of older people. Evidently in Denmark and Japan robots are being used to provide home care. So much for the human touch!

Monbiot argued that a whole raft of measures will be necessary regarding the provision of care, and that robots alone won’t suffice. According to him, we must face the pain and start planning now for the coming demographic downturn. Migration would be a factor, i.e. bringing in young carers from developing countries that would not be going through these demographic changes just yet.

Prof Wolff was emphatic that having young carers from overseas caring for older people in the UK would not work. He gave the example of a young Polish student caring for an ‘old lady’ could not work as there would be ‘no empathy’ and therefore it would not be viable. Paxman, quite rightly, pointed out that surely this was already happening with lots of workers from overseas providing care in the care sector in this country!

Young people will be required to supply the funds/care/labour that older people will require. Older people will be a ‘demographic burden’ which some people will have to service.

The issue of resentment of older people was raised. Wouldn’t young people resent older people, despite it not being their fault that they were living longer? According to Monbiot, young people will be required to supply the funds/care/labour that older people will require. Older people will be perceived as a ‘demographic burden’ which some people will have to service. Monbiot stated that he fully expects to be hated and seen as having not only ‘screwed up the planet’ but become a huge economic burden, should he survived long enough to be an ‘old crock’ ( it did not seem to occur to him that this was a very ageist and insulting term!) The situation will be very politically challenging, he concluded.

Wolff disagreed, he believes that many people will make provision for their old age, while others will be ‘feckless’ and will have a rough time of it. It did not seem to occur to him that contrary to being ‘feckless’, many people are not in a financial position to make provision for old age, they are living from day-to-day.
Further evidence, in my opinion, that he lives in a middle-class bubble which eschews class differentials. One point he made which I concur with is that as a society we need to put as much effort into providing for people towards the end of life as we do for the upbringing of children.

Dementias, World Café, Solidarity

I am overwhelmed by a mass of information. I am drowning in facts and figures and I am conferenced out.  On October 1st it was the International Day of Older Persons, 2012 is the European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations.

As the manager of the Older Feminist Network website I try to keep up to date on ageing issues and attended two conferences on Ageing this past week.

On October 1st, Harrow ageUK held a conference about dementia ‘Breaking Down Barriers’. I learnt a lot about Dementias from the clinical point of view. Figures about its prevalence,  proportion of diagnosed against non diagnosed (32% in Harrow)), the cost of care 20 billions  and only 50 millions spent on research. One figure stuck  in my mind 1 in 3 people die with some sort of dementia. What I learnt also was that there is an appalling lack of decent NHS and Social Services to deal with this condition. I learnt that if all people with dementia were identified their basic needs could not be financed by the NHS. We were given information about Harrow but I suspect that the situation is more or less the same in other boroughs.

It was pointed to us that the officials on the panel did not make policies but had to do their best with the available cash. So the contributions  about the long waiting lists for what is called the Memory Clinic and the tests necessary for diagnosis, the lack of support for carers and the general dismal state of care in the community went unheard by anybody in power. The people attending were mainly carers, and representatives of people involved with dementia.

 On October 2nd I attended an altogether different event about ageing.   Age UK hosted a World Café event in celebration of the European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations.  This project is supported by the Citizens for Europe Program of the European Union and  called  ‘Changing the Way Ageing is Perceived’.   A string quartet welcomed us in the meeting room of the Royal Festival Hall. We were provided with generous refreshments and lunch. 100 delegates: 80 from the UK and 20 from other European countries. The World Café – this pretentious name –  takes the form of a giant workshop. Discussions in small groups of people who do not know each other and who come from different geographical locations.  I could go on about the interesting aspects of this gathering: meeting new old people, the possibility of making new links, the food, the view, witnessing old people, mainly women, in action etc… but frankly this whole effort was to my mind a waste of time and resources. At a meeting about the perception of old people the words ageist and culture were not mentioned once. And once more the people who should be held to account were not there : the  power wielding representatives of the media and the government.

Active Ageing? yes all people present at this ‘world cafe”  are very active in their own community.  I think that the old if they are fit and healthy are all active in some way. Some have hardly time to look after themselves. The voluntary sectors involved in the community,  from managers to hand-ons workers  are in the majority made up of old people.  Solidarity between the generations?  Of course we are all for it. But in this climate of austerity and cuts,  libraries, day centres, communities events are culled.   Youth unemployment is rising and disabled people are being hounded. The gulf between 3rd. Age and 4th Age is deepening.

The contrast and similarities  between these two meetings was striking and unsettling. In both meetings the voluntary sector was prominent: Alzheimer’s Society, Dementia Uk, Admiral Nurses, in the first.   In the second volunteers  community workers most of them retired . But where were the politicians, the  press ? Lots of information but no way to voice our expectations and demands for a more equal and inclusive society.

Great Grand-Mother, continuities and discontinuities.

I am so grateful to Leni Marshall who put me on the Ageing Studies e list. It is through this network that I found about the What Is Old Age conference at the University of Warwick. I contacted them with a contribution to their blog and lo and behold this blog at last benefited from a few hits.

I have become a great-grandmother this last week. As usual so many contradictory feelings. I feel this status as very extraordinary. I only know one person aged 92 (still working as a music teacher) who has great-grandchildren. The majority of my friends and relatives are  far from getting to the fourth generation. Yet I realise that both my grandmother and my mother lived to be great grand parents.

I live at an hour’s journey from my great grand-daughter. I am torn between feeling sad that I cannot see her everyday and relief that I do not have to worry about her and her mother. Every day I catch myself wanting to phone to give advice and ask : Is the baby  feeding well ?  are you both getting enough sleep, do you need my help? Yet I know that these reflexes are not reasonable.  I keep quiet and have a peep at Facebook to realise that the grandchildren live in a different world, have their own friends and culture and that I am marginal in their lives.

I had noticed that both my grand-mother and my mother gave an impression of being distant from my children and grandchildren. Both women had very different lives as old women and were separated from my children and grandchildren geographically and language and I attributed this distance to these facts. But now I suddenly identify with them  in spite of living in the same city and speak the same language as my grand-daughter. We do live in different countries.

Usually a birth in a family signifies continuity. Why do I feel that there is also discontinuities?