Family and friends on holiday.

The daughter of a cousin is visiting. A French academic, she briefly lectured in Aleppo before the recent wars and destruction.
She often stayed with her grandparents (my aunt and uncle) in Beirut and Israel and heard them talk about their lives in Aleppo . She is interested in this past.
I was delighted to find a listening ear. I unearthed photos, my school reports and other documents and relived the past for a few days.
My early life in Aleppo that I left at the age of 10 (late 30s/early 40s ), seemed more important to me than later life in Beirut that I left aged 21. It seemed vital that I should transmit my recollections to somebody familiar with this background.

I am left wondering in the days of globalisation how old women experience their uprooting. I am sure that each exile is different depending on the country of origin, the conditions of leaving, the process of acculturation in the new country, the assimilation of the children,  the community.

In her last days in a French hospital, my mother in pain would utter a sound approximating to …AKH, AKH. When I visited her, a concerned nurse asked me what she was asking for, not realising that this utterance expressed pain (physical or even psychological) in her native language.

I am wondering if exiled people with dementia are misunderstood by carers of a different cultural background and even language.

I am wondering what the life review of old age feels like if not shared.


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 Normale. 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, I believe? 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,

Let Us Talk About Mental Health

I attended a focus group yesterday ‘Let us talk about Mental Health’. It was organised by Age Uk and the GLF ( Greater London Forum for Old People)   for a programme of  the National Development Team for Inclusion. The three-year programme ‘Leaders for Change in Mental Health’  aims are:

– Build the confidence, skills and capacity of older people who use mental health services. – To lead and influence change in their own lives and in wider service developments.         – Increase the voice, visibility and influence of older people with mental health problems.    – Develop and test innovative ways of promoting and enhancing mental health and wellbeing  later life in the two participating areas.                                                                                     – Increase  awareness, understanding and  education about mental ill-health in later life. A key element of the work will be to tackle the stigma, fear, and isolation that many older people with mental health problems experience.

The morning was very instructive. The first point that was interesting was that the facilitator had to stress a few times that this session was NOT about Alzheimer’s. This immediately made me conscious of my own bias of equating mental illness in the old with dementia.

We were then given facts and figures about the degree of discrimination against the old in the field of Mental Health. It is staggering. In the field of depression  for example 1 in 4 people live with depression, only 25% are diagnosed and less than 2% are referred to primary care psychological therapy. This is only one example, figures about other mental illnesses are as devastating.

We then discussed what needs to change to remedy this state of serious discrimination.

The NDTI (National Development Team for Inclusion) three years programme of training older people to  ‘ Increase awareness and understanding , agree local priorities for change, including tackling stigma, negative attitudes and stereotypes about age and mental illness and influence local service development and delivery’ is commendable. It is all too rare to empower old people to have a voice and fight for their rights.

During our discussions however at our table, isolation, and the lack of resources at the first point of access, the GP, were the main issues to be considered. We live in a climate of drastic services cuts. Day centres, libraries, community services are being dismantled and the GP consultation is limited to 10 mins and one issue. Hardly conditions that facilitate the observation of people who need psychological support and help. There is  a crisis in social care, care workers are badly paid and sometimes badly trained. No amount of consciousness raising on its own would help changing the situation of mental health neglect but  also diverting major resources into community projects might.