AGEING, Globalisation and Family

A letter from a close friend of mine reaching her 80th birthday.
Dear Rina,
No I do not mind if you post this letter on your blog. I imagine that other old women may have the same experience. But please do not divulge personal information.

As you know i have lost my sister who lived in the South of France and my ex (husband) also died last year. I have been so busy since I retired. I have had a few affairs, I have worked teaching English, I have helped in a centre for disadvantaged youth and travelled around the globe to visit my children. But now I feel tired and need to be rather than do. It is something that you have written to me about but being younger than you I did not quite see what you meant.
I feel a need to be with people who have known me for a significant length of time, people who know my background, where I come from, people who have known if not all my own family at least some of them. The few friends I made in my nomadic life are now gone. I know that it should be easier for me compared to you. I live in Paris now, French is my language but my life as mother of two sons and a daughter was spent in England for a period of time in Willesden where I met you. I envied your big family. I knew your mother and your brothers who came to visit you and I have still some oriental gifts that you brought back from Beirut. You were so comfortable in your own identity. I was lost between my French background and my English husband that I finally divorced in the painful circumstances that you are aware of.
You know that my children did well but the little family feeling that I had then in Willesden, has gone forever and I blame globalisation.

Do you remember how we disagreed on feminism? You would be proud of the career women both my daughter and in laws have become. I see my daughter not very often when she comes to Paris. She is still a very busy foreign correspondent for an obscure American TV channel. I know nothing of her life – she has never enough time in Paris. Although full of attention for her old mother, she does not feel she can share her difficult life.

You were very impressed when the two boys graduated from Polytechnique and Supaero. Yes they did well, you know, but I have never felt the fracture there when I was living my own interesting life. S. works for an international outfit in Hong Kong. His wife is Chinese and they have a son. They are very close to her own family and during their visits they stay in a hotel rather than in my flat. I found it interesting when I visited them and her family and toured a bit. But the links were too tenuous to last in spite of my attempts to learn Mandarin.
R. after a dangerous life as an environmentalist has finally settled. He married a divorced Moroccan woman with two children and they live in Rabat. The children used to come to Paris and stayed with me when they were young. But not anymore. Again they all feel closer to the maternal family and after all, the sun shines more in Morocco than Paris.

I never felt this isolation until now that I do not travel much. I wonder if like me you find the importance of being with people who know where you come from without actually having shared all  your past. I wonder too how easy it is for you to have mixed-race grandchildren and great-grandchild, these days of creeping racism.  How do you feel to have your brothers scattered over the globe:  California, New Zealand, Paris? Are you fully integrated in London? and does Leon’s family give you this family feeling? I am sorry that you cannot go birdwatching anymore because of your poor eyesight but I am sure that your feel for nature is still as strong as ever.

I am so grateful for our correspondence. You will never know how much I miss your visits to Paris. Now that we do not see each other I felt I had to revisit my trajectory. The boulangerie/cafe in Passy where we used to spend hours sharing our lives has gone. I feel a need to reinforce our friendship and share my consciousness of a new stage in my life: the 80s.
Not easy,
……..

THE TERRIBLE 92 – part 2

Advice to myself and carers

There is no fooling ma tante Salma, her senses are all there: with her eagle eyes she will notice any minor change you dare make in her surrounding, any change of expression in your face. Her nose will smell the cucumber being cut in the room next door or the tiniest drop of sweat you may harbour. And I swear she must have a 7th sense that allows her to guess people’s thoughts and their next move within a centimetre of precision.
Her memory is all there and my ears are going to explode with tales of money, success, status, past splendour: les soirees, les brilliants et les toilettes (the evening parties, diamonds and chic clothes) often repeated again and again…
And now what? With all her money, she is pacing round and round in her room and in her head, worrying about the next pipi. Worrying about millions of minor problems, not being able to abdicate her authority on her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren…after all I have done for them
She lives in anticipation of what will happen in the next days with great anxiety.
Are these common features of old age? Or is it the result of living in exile? Past traumas not digested?

After my three weeks’ stint caring for Salma, I made myself some observations about old age .
It is very important to explain to anxious older people when and how things will happen, even if it is not what they want, rather than being vague and letting them build scenarios in their head
We must not think that age diminishes the intellect or the senses and we must treat old people as normal adults
Do not contradict old people, they usually know best but sometimes when they don’t, let it pass, or you may get a tantrum, it is not worth it
It is vital not to forget who the person is and recognise all what they have achieved in their life when they are still alive, not only at their funerals
Old people still need touch, kisses, love and little gifts of the things they like

Reminders for myself:
Do your pelvic floor exercise on the hour every hour
Notice any obsessions that may develop, acknowledge them and try to move on
Ask for help and accept help graciously, don’t forget to say thank you
Do not expect people to communicate with you if I you do not put your hearing aid
Make sure you have a non-judgmental friend or two to whom you can lash out all your woes without being contradicted
What money you have, USE IT! for your comfort and amusement, what are you waiting for?

Someone should devise a course on growing old that is not only about how to eat well, how to stay active and warm, but about the behaviours we can develop, how to deal with psychological changes. The usual response from the near and dear is : ah! she needs antidepressant”, donnez lui un calmant…

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.

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

FEAR OF ISOLATION

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/14/age-of-loneliness-killing-us?CMP=fb_gu#comment-42263329

It is creeping towards me. Stealthily, viciously, deadly. Since leaving the country of my youth where we lived in a big extended family I have always felt in danger of this threat but this was often allayed by the advantages of living free with no prying and judging eyes. My maternal Grandmother lived with us. She was part of the family but not quite. She mainly kept to her room being served her meals by a maid who was looking after her. My father could not bear the noise of her ill-fitting dentures at the table and she was only admitted at the table for the high holidays. She sat a the window all day long and observed the comings and goings of the tenants of this modern block of flats. She followed the dramas and comedies of a street always full of people and she used to run after me with a cardigan when she saw friends coming to pick me up to go out in the evening…

I often think of her now. I sit at my suburban kitchen window and observe the seasonal changes of the oak tree or the impassive leaves of the …. and I think yes it is about to get me.

It started a year after my retirement. I missed my colleagues dreadfully, the wonderful feeling of working in a team and knowing each other rather well. The daily contacts  and the feeling of the daily changes of my life being witnessed, the need to get on with people I did not like particularly.. In this gap year I achieved my dream of swimming on the Great Barrier Reef and observing the tropical natural wildlife I then settled in the anonymous London Suburb where I knew nobody in spite of having lived here for decades.   I joined different associations, The U3A, the antinuclear groups, the feminist groups and often went birdwatching on holiday. I read Betty Friedan but did not heed her advice of the time to change ones life as you grow older is soon after retirement. I was too busy campaigning and making new acquaintances but apart from a handful of very close friends who lived a long way away the quality of connection of the extended family or of my special working environment  was never achieved again.

In perfect synchrony the physical changes and the dreaded fear augment by the day. A meeting missed here a demonstration avoided there.   I have started to diminish my activities and opportunities for social contacts.

 

Do old women need role models?

The end of the year and into my 81st year. Time to take stock and reflect. There has been so much change around ageing issues since I started being interested in the representation of old women 20 years ago. At the time, 60+ was the age when women were considered old and the few academic papers published took this as the bench mark. I had to search hard to access information about ageing and attended seminars and conferences planned for social workers. I joined the Older Feminist Network, a campaigning organisation at the time, and Growing Old Disgracefully network. I started, with the support of the local authority, the U3A in the borough of Brent.

Now Ageing is being studied in all its aspects by Academia. There are dozens if not 100s of sites about ageing: from the International Longevity Centre to blogs written by individuals (I will include my own www.oldwomaninfeaturefilms.wordpress.com. )

Today I would like to reflect on three items in the news.

From ageuk website:  Each winter, 1 older person dies needlessly every 7 minutes from the cold – that’s 200 deaths a day that could be prevented… Age UK estimates that 1.7 million older people in the UK can’t afford to heat their homes, and over a third (36%) of older people in the UK say they live mainly in one room to save money.

From the Guardian Comment is free 26th November 2014:   On Tuesday he (the Pope) addressed the European parliament in Strasbourg. Speaking of the need for Europe to be invigorated, he described the continent as a “grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant”, and went on to say it risked “slowly losing its own soul”…

The Independent Dec 2nd: Mary  Beard calls for a grey revolution: ‘Let’s reclaim the word old’. Speaking at Cheltenham Literary Festival, the classicist said reaching old age should be a source of pride and suggested Agatha Christie’s character Miss Marple as role model.

To me these three news items encapsulate what I find disturbing in the climate of denial that surrounds old age. The age uk information about the plight of old people who have no other voice is reported in the press on one day and disappears from view the next. As with the abuse in care homes, the extreme isolation of some old people that leads to mental decline, the social problems of old people do not feature in high visibility campaigns.  As mentioned in my previous blog, and argued by Jay Ginn, old frail people have no public voice. We do not want to know about the end game (Prof. Kirkwood’s term for the end of life). Old frail, disabled old people, are ‘other’.  We prefer to identify with the ‘still doing it’ campaigns: the positive living, growing old healthy, independent age, age and   culture, growing bolder and the myriad of other sites. But as shown by the 77 years old Pope sexism sticks closely to ageism. Ageing is a feminist issue but  in the feminist communities old women are hardly visible. The OFN (Older Feminist Network) and the OLN (Older Lesbian Network) have now been joined by another network (7 sisters network). They are networks of friends who get together for sharing experiences, hidden from view. I am not aware of any old  women groups who are campaigning for the rights of  the frail, abused and lonely. The only two workshops about ageism at the Feminism In London Conference did not consider the Crisis in Care.

This leads me to Mary Beard’s proposing Miss Marple as a role model.  Do  we old women need ‘role models’? I do not think so. What we need is high-profile people who would advertise the contribution that we make to society. Our diverse roles: volunteers in the Health Service and hospices, philosophers, music teachers, workers, painters and singers, peace campaigners, grandmothers, great grandmothers and many more .  At any meetings, demonstrations against war, against violence, against the savage cuts we are there white hair and all. We  are often the foundations of community groups, religious associations. The research produced  about our ageing society by the universities is often inaccessible and does not permeate the general public’s consciousness.  What we need is for feminist writers to explore and close the gap between the  60+ healthy old and the old who face the end game.  What we need is for the young old to fight for the old who are unable to make themselves heard. For the old who die alone because of the cold weather. 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.