Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Fifteen minute friend

The title refers to the current state of concern that in many areas elderly or disabled persons who need a home visit from a care worker for things they can't do for themselves are having to accept very quick visits indeed, booked to last only quarter of an hour. This stems from home care spending being squeezed by lack of money. It's not going to get better. There are more and more old people all the time, and more of them are living longer, so council budgets are going to be constantly under a lot of strain.

I'm not happy about this. I don't feel 'old' yet, and I won't expect to for a long time to come. But sometime in the next twenty to thirty years certain things I presently take for granted will become difficult to do unaided, and I will no doubt then have to consider getting somebody in every day to make life easier. I'd like to think that I will be sufficiently well-off to afford paid help, and believe me, if I'm paying for their time, I will make the very most of it. But if I can't afford to pay, as might happen if charges skyrocket, then I'll have to put up with whatever else is on offer. Not much, I suspect.

As a society, we don't take the plight of the elderly seriously. Let's be frank: to many younger, active people, the elderly are an inconvenient tedious nuisance, and possibly an annoyance. I don't mean the fit under-eighties: they make great babysitters and loan-providers, don't they? It's the ones older still, who are getting overtaken by ill-health and are running down, simply existing. Some individual old people (of whatever age) are of course well-loved and cherished, but as a body they are not. Their troubles and sorrows, their pains and their aches, these are reduced to a matter of medicine, the pills to be taken, the bandages to be renewed, the injections to be administered. Something to hand over to the home care visitor or nurse. Fifteen minutes might indeed be enough to efficiently make sure that the daily dosage has been duly taken, and therefore all is well.

But what about the empathy? What time is there for a chat, to share news, to have that warm and understanding human contact that old people complain they simply don't have enough of?

We will all end up facing this plight. Age is a great leveller. The biggest pension in the world, the nicest house, all the rewards of fame and fortune, can't stop your mind and body failing and your becoming dependent on other people. When that time comes, it doesn't matter who you once were, or what you once did or achieved. It's just you and the ticking clock, as another long, uncomfortable and lonely day drags it way to a close.

I once investigated a care home in Bromley, Kent, and listened to an anecdote at an interview. A lady, herself old, had visited one of the residents. The visitor was horrified. It wasn't that the resident lady was badly looked after. It was because she had once been a well-known journalist, a woman of adventure, with a sharp, brilliant, enquiring mind; never marrying, she'd had instead a vibrant intellectual and social life; she'd written books as well as articles; and she'd had an enviable income. Now here she was: just a poor, thin, bent husk of her former self, another old lady in a room on her own. Nobody at the care home, not even the owners, realised who she had been. She could hardly remember herself. She took no interest in the world now; she did no writing; had nothing much to read; she was going blind. She lived for her cups of tea, and bread and butter in the afternoon. She was vague and dribbled. Nobody else had come to see her for a long time, and she could hardly recall who her visitor was. It was an overdrawn description, but I felt the sadness, the shock, of seeing a once vital, energetic, well-known Somebody now reduced to a senile Nobody.

That interview was twenty years ago, and what I heard then has been on my mind ever since. I have long vowed not to let Old Age creep up on me from behind; I must have a plan, and be ready to look Old Age in the eye.

It seems to me that most people end up on their own, with nobody to care about them, or to think about them. I am bound to be in that position from a combination of choice and fate. So I am thinking about possible remedies right now, and not leaving matters until I am suddenly aware that all my friends are, like me, too weak and weary to visit. I am not going to let home care, whether organised by the state, or the local council, or possibly by a charity, be my only option. Because by then it'll be down to five minutes or less.


  1. My MIL is in that position at the moment, she refuses to go into a home (who wants to be told when and what to eat, what time to get up/go to bed etc?) She pays a lady to come in and help her shower, get breakfast and prepare something for lunch. The lady comes back in the evening, to make sure she has something to eat and to help her get undressed. She can just about afford this; Unfortunately the lady which MIL trusts and likes is no spring chicken herself. An agency would be very expensive and as you say, visits limited to a few minutes. We've been over to see her 3 times this year which has really made a difference to her for a week. What to do? I can't imagine how long the days and nights must seem to her when she is alone.

    We might have a longer life to look forward to, but what kind of life will it be?

  2. Yes indeed. All thing being equal, a long life is a good thing, but it must be one tackled with constant energy and vigour. But there will inevitably come a point when the energy evaporates, and it gets to be a burden.

    And I'm not sure I'd really want to retain amazing fitness and good health far beyond 100. What if you outlived all your contemporaries, perhaps even your children? It seems a recipe for sadness.


  3. Quality not quantity is how I look on life and have no wish to just sit about waiting for a cup of tea, not that keen on cheap tea...

    Our elderly neighbour has just returned home after a leisurely 3 hour fifty minute lunch with a few friends, we have to look after each other...

  4. Knowing I have a genetic 'advantage' for longevity gives little comfort these days. Somehow, it would be pleasant to figure out a way to get the body and mind to phase themselves out in tandem. If not, perhaps losing the mental side first might be preferable.

  5. Lucy, having lost her friends is something that doubles the loneliness as far as MIL is concerned. Her memory for the past is better so she enjoys talking about her adventures in the war;;;; at the admiralty she worked with a nice young man who just happened to be married to Princess Elizabeth!


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