Ageing and Feminism

This month I attended two important public events. Both corresponded to a part of my identity but they could not have been more different in content and form.

I was invited to the OLD’UP colloque in Paris by Moira Allan who founded with Dr. Jean Hively the international ‘Pass it on Network’. The conference took place in the prestigious government building of the ‘Conseil Economic, Social et Environmental.’ The auditorium had perfect sound and vision from its 400 seats. We were treated to 6 panels: Being Old , The Apprentice Centenarians, Old’Up Workshops Reports, Links and International Input, Initiatives, Prospects. The 20 panel members (16 women) were all specialists of ageing: theoreticians as well as workers at the grass-roots: philosopher, academic, sociologist, researcher, psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, geriatrician, gerontologist, social and health workers. I was fascinated by the breath of approach to the day. I felt that I belonged to a demographic group worth thinking about, theorising about, researching, studying, providing for and innovating. The day was invigorating. One commentary from the stage did mention that women were in a majority and my searching eyes delighted in the sea of white-haired heads in the auditorium.

I was just as enthused by the Feminist in London Conference  that took place at the Hilton Metropole Hotel: 1000 women, 4 keynote speakers, 16 workshops, art exhibition, film room, children activities, stalls campaigns, crafts, books . The energy was electrifying. Intergenerational contacts and acknowledgement of our past were made, but there was no presence of the old woman here and now. No voice represented me as an old feminist even though many speakers were ‘old women’: the legendary Nawal Saadawi, Bianca Jagger looking magnificent all in black including her mane of jet black hair, Bea Campbell, Jay Ginn. I only mention the old women I actually heard speak  but there were others.

In spite of this presence I felt that we, ordinary old feminists, have not raised our voices loudly enough and have not shared our concerns and contributions. The crisis in care, for example, is without doubt a feminist issue but more personal experiences are worth sharing and understanding also. What does an old feminist grandmother look like? Why are the grandmother and grand-aunt roles not appreciated? Why is the family important as we age? What does an old feminist feel about her ageing body?  What does an old feminist feel about losing independence? What are the changes that a feminist couple need to adapt to.  What are the feminist possible alternatives to the choice between getting isolated and living in a less than liberating care home? How do old feminists  see approaching death?

But also what brings us joy and zest for living and making a difference?

ACTIVE, HEALTHY, SUCCESSFUL AGEING ?

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/04/unequal-until-the-end/389910/

Browsing vaguely in the early morning, I came across this article. It is about the US but the article looks at ageing from a different angle than the proselytising  “successful ageing”, “active ageing”, “healthy ageing” well-intentioned, money wasting, programmes that so infuriate me.

I will quote only a few lines from the article but Abramson’s book (The End Game .How Inequality Shapes Our Final Years. Corey M. Abramson. Harvard University Press) may be useful to the people engaged in social policy, and fund-raising endeavours.

For the affluent, old age has its challenges. For the impoverished, it’s only harder.

Perhaps the presence of shared challenges in later life explains why we’ve glossed over inequality’s effects among the elderly …  

Social circumstances affect not only how long we live, but how healthy we are when we become seniors.

Some of the elderly I encountered in my study aged with immense wealth, social support, and education. Others did so in poverty and isolation. The wealthiest people in my study had aged in or retired to communities with voluminous senior programs, while many of the poor became increasingly isolated as they struggled with piecemeal social services.

The ideal of “successful aging,” emblazoned in the collective consciousness by glossy magazine pictures of smiling senior couples watching sunsets from a beach, is more attainable for some of us than others. The reality is old age is not the end of inequality, but its end game.

I often argue that the choice given to old people between retirement/care homes and ending their lives on their own in their own homes is a false one. The rich old Americans must know what is good for them… Campaigning for a ‘healthy’ life for the old must include the demand for funds to establish structures to facilitate social life for the frail, the disabled, the financially deprived…

 

 

 

Active Ageing and Disability

I am angry, I am very angry.

‘Active Ageing’ is the buzz expression these days. Mention the magic words and short-term projects will be funded, academic research will be supported and women who want a contemplative and quiet life will feel guilty.

I believe that the expression was introduced by the WHO about people over 60 years of age and has been taken up by the EU and other organisations. What are the ageist assumptions that underpin the Active Ageing concept? I do not know about men, or other countries and I talk from an 80 years old Londoner’s point of view. I know that fit and healthy old women do not sit doing nothing all day. Some are still paid for their work, the majority work for no pay: they look after their grandchildren, they are carers for parents or partners, they volunteer for hundreds of charities, hospitals, hospices, schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, they take courses or lead courses. They write, they sing, they paint.
They tend their gardens and allotments and care for the environment and campaign for peace and justice. And some have earned the right to choose not to be ‘productive’. Fit and healthy women do not need help in being ‘active’. I sometimes think that they would benefit from help in slowing down.

In the field of education I am angry because Adult Education courses where old and young adults learned together have been severely curtailed for lack of funds and new courses are funded specially for the ‘old’ to be active – very often without provisions for the disabled old.

Quoted in Age-Friendly-London Report: “Older people are living with disabilities and longstanding illnesses for a greater proportion of their life, although this varies with social class, ethnicity, gender and location. At age 65 men are now expected to live with disability for 7.9 years, women 9.9 years (ONS 2014a).” I am angry because the Active Ageing campaign does not address this fact and seems to me to concentrate on the fit and healthy.

There are no courses on living with impaired hearing or vision. There are no courses in adapting to creeping disabilities. There are no courses in adapting to the changing relationship in couples when one becomes disabled. There are no courses on how to talk to your doctor and learn about the medication prescribed. I only know of one course on living with a chronic illness. And apart from the growth of independently organised Death Cafes I know of no courses about death.

Active Ageing? Yes, of course. Give the old the means and they will need no help to be active. State-of-the-art hearing aids for the hard of hearing that is one of the causes of isolation. Mobility scooters for all who want one. Local Community Centres with good transport and facilities for the disabled that will provide daily social contacts.

I am angry because the problem of isolation and mental deterioration is not solved by a befriender visiting once a week even if there are caring relatives who can visit sporadically Sheltered accommodation, care homes, nursing homes are of an appalling standard unless you are extremely rich.

Yes Active Ageing: Fund community hubs, adult education, local activities, adequate transport, meeting spaces, age-mixed housing areas with cultural activities. We are social animals and need daily human contact however superficial.

TEA AND CAKES AT THE DEATH CAFE

This week is Death Awareness week and yesterday I went for tea to the death cafe at St. Joseph Hospice Hackney. I met there three of my friends and we were joined at our table  by three other women.

This is not a report but simply a note. When I used to go out with Elizabeth my friend, now deceased, I was sometimes embarrassed by the way she made a point of telling the organisers if the hard-of-hearing were not catered for. Now that my hearing is failing I understand her.

There was abundant tea, coffee and lovely cakes in one of the Education rooms  of the hospice. We were welcomed and introduced to some members of the staff and told that Death Cafes were becoming more established in London.  We sat around the tables and talked.  We talked at length about funerals and briefly about assisted dying, hospices, last days of life, in a more or less personal way.  I did miss some of the contributions but it is difficult to ask people more than once to project their voice.

It is a shame that there was no summing up. I was curious to know what were  the subjects at the other tables.  We were asked what we felt about the name of Death Cafe as a name for these meetings.  A majority of people approved of it.

I was clearly the older at our table yesterday and I was surprised to know that one woman said that the only funeral she ever attended was her father’s.  After my friend’s funeral last week I realised that I had a special folder for ‘Order of Service’ booklets. This morning I counted the number of funerals I attended in my life. They amounted to 22*. The deceased were all close family relations and friends. I suppose that I come from a generation where families were not as dispersed as they are now and that I have reached an age when my contemporaries are dying.

5 of us decided to meet again to speak about death.

 

*2 sets of parents, 6 uncles and aunts, 2 sister/sister-in-law,  2 cousins,  7 friends, 1 niece .

FUNERALS PUBLIC AND PRIVATE

At the age of 80 I find I am attending funerals quite often and at the last one it occurred to me how like a performance the rituals are. There are religious ones with pre determined scripts and performers. These vary according to the religion of the deceased or rather their family’s. But more and more they vary in genre and form. One followed the director’s – in this case the deceased – directions faithfully. She had instructed how her funeral ceremony should be performed in minute detail: who would speak, the lines they would read, the poem they would declaim and the song they would sing. Some funerals feature the deceased as the heroine/hero of their own life as seen from different points of view. I was specially touched by the testimonies of two carers who looked after the 100 years old woman in the last years of her life. The soundtrack is as varied as the people, hymns, well-known music for the circumstance or even popular songs sang by the whole gathering. The testimonies can be heartbreaking when the performer is overcome by grief and cannot continue. More often even the testimonies are stereotyped: a lot about how great the person was with a hint of an anecdote to underline a human imperfection and elicit a smile or laugh of recognition. At one funeral some of the testimonies were so well written that they were applauded. Cremation and burial differ in form. At a West Indian burial ceremony a bottle of rum was circulated and the grave was filled up by male members of the family.

Very often in the case of people dying in their old age this is an occasion for long-lost friends and relatives to meet again and catch up with each other. The meeting before the ceremony is chatty, the reminiscences are not always about the deceased.

It is this public/private contrasting aspects that strike me every time. My feelings about death have been shaped in my very early childhood. Although as children we were not included in the proceedings or were even positively excluded, my memories are vivid. What I remember is my mother and aunts wearing all black for the day. Some even wore black for the whole year. Men wore a black armband. I remember walking with my mother and aunts and on passing a woman wearing black in the street the sentence was etched in my brain ‘Do you know who she has lost?”. The use of the concept of losing somebody intrigued me. Although not living in a close community to this day I think that wearing something to signal that the person is in mourning is a good idea.   I remember the family sitting on the floor for days and a stream of people visiting to share their grief and make the time easier to bear. I remember that they were offered sweet cakes with the traditional coffee.

Most of all I remember the privacy of the event and I find it cruel that it is the custom nowadays for the bereaved to talk publicly to an audience who often barely knew the dead person. I find it incomprehensible that on television the bereaved are asked ‘How do you feel about the loss of your mother, your child, your friend?’ I find it incomprehensible that masses of people mourn a celebrity as if they were personally connected.

A film comes to mind. Alan Rickman’s The Winter Visitor that I need to view again and write about in my film blog.  How is death, bereavement, and grief portrayed in films?

 

Live isolated in own home – this is what people say they want

Is it coincidence or what happened to a friend and a relative of mine more common than the general population imagines?

The two women, very different in all ways, over 80 both of them thought of themselves as coping living on their own. O loved her comfortable flat. Very independent she belonged to a few social groups, had many friends and family and at no time considered changing the situation. M on the other hand lives in badly managed sheltered accommodation after many moves, has no friends and only an elderly relative  as social contact.

O was found by a neighbour, unconscious. Nobody knew got to know how long she had been lying on her bed unable to contact anybody.  After a few weeks in hospital, she died. M was also found  nearly  unconscious and bruised on the floor where she had been lying for two days and nights.  The ambulance took over an hour to arrive and she was admitted to hospital. After 10 days as an inpatient she was declared medically fit and discharged with the promise of home care help as soon as she arrived home. She was still very confused, weak and unable to function. The relative was not informed of the situation, and not given any contact numbers.  The carers did not arrive that day, evening, or the next day. It transpired that she was discharged before a care plan was put in place by the council.

I am writing this because I felt strongly that the general policy of keeping old people in their own home as long as possible ,’that is what they wish’, may in the long run be more destructive and costly that establishing good care homes. I have written about this in previous posts (search in this blog ‘Enrich your future, and  Protecting our parents) . Our culture is an individualistic one. The isolation figures are worrying and lead to the above incidents. Yet excellent care homes cater for rich people. We need to think outside the box, read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, investigate OWCH. Ageing is a feminist issue and there is hope that the revival of feminist groups (london 70s sisters)   will yield similar projects.

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/16/co-housing-people-things-common-live-together-older-people

END OF YEAR – END OF LIFE

The end of the year and I need to take stock but there is so much to write about. Every time I get dispirited by the lack of traffic on this site compared to my film blog, a comment is posted from the other side of the world thanking me for it.

There is so much to write about and so few people around me interested in sharing my readings that I must carry on and today I will just signpost my readings as an aide memoir and give links to others interested in ageing.

Personal : a friend has moved from a small rehabilitation unit to sheltered accommodation. Unfortunately her care needs have been badly assessed and she is struggling to manage. This could be remedied by a different care package but members of her family are away for the holiday season and she is further away for her friends – old themselves to visit in this busy time.

http://bit.ly/EndLoneliness : A million people in the Uk haven’t spoken to anyone for a month. Nearly 400,000 people aged 65 or over are worried about being lonely this Christmas.

Our research also shows that there are 2.5 million older people who are not looking forward to Christmas with nearly 650,000 saying it’s because the festive season brings back too many memories of those who have passed away.
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director of Age UK, said: ‘No one should feel lonely at any time of the year. The festive season is usually a time for celebration with loved ones and these figures come as a timely reminder of the scale of the issue.
‘People’s social networks often shrink due to life-changing events such as retirement and bereavement which can increase the risk of feeling lonely.
‘Voluntary sector services like Age UK’s have never been more important because funding cuts are forcing many of the local services that help older people stay connected, such as lunch clubs, to scale down or close.’
Find out how you can help us fight loneliness here:

Grandmothers:  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/new-evidence-that-grandmothers-were-crucial-for-human-evolution-88972191/?no-ist

Care Homes and drugs: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/12/09/368539057/this-nursing-home-calms-troubling-behavior-without-risky-drugs?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=202609

Joan Bakewell: What a change of the perception of ones own ageing in 6 years. In my film blog’s post of April 2011 I wrote: I feel angry when Joan Bakewell (reported in The Voice of Older People publication, 2009) states “I don’t want to wear sensible skirts, I don’t want to look like an old frump. I mix with active people, so I don’t want to look like I have come from a pensioner’s meeting. My life is somewhere else, my skirts and dresses hover around the knee” . 

http://www.radiotimes.com/episode/c9tmsg/suppose-i-lose-it : In this broadcast Bakewell describes her problems with memory and talks about her friend’s (Prunella Scales) dementia.

Finally it is Atul Gowande in his Reith Lectures that is giving me hope about attitudes to dependent old people. In my previous post I wrote: What we need is creative thinking and a way to combat the false choice given to old people in need of care. The false choice between living alone at home or being neglected and abused in care homes.

A friend offered me his book Being Mortal. More than the lectures this book addresses the issues about end of life that us 80+ need to face. I feel that Gowande understands these and he clarifies for me what was nebulous in my thinking.