Sunday, 12 June 2011

Where do the Old People Play?

My Mum runs the local Darby and Joan, which is a social club for the elderly people in the village. Once a fortnight, my Mum and the other lady who runs the club, pick up the various members from their houses, and take them to the village hall, where they play parlour games, eat cake and drink tea. The highlight of the year for many of them is the annual Revue show put on by the local school children. For many of the members, this is the only time that they will get out of the house during the two weeks, and all of them will turn up looking as smart as they are able.
The event I’ve always liked the most is the spring drive, when my Mum organises a Motts Travel coach to pick them up all and take them for a sojourn  in the Oxfordshire countryside. I think early trips were meant to stop off for lunch somewhere, but they soon gave up on this idea, as everyone just falls asleep. But I will challenge anyone who says that these trips are  a waste of time.
To see their joy at having the opportunity to venture out to places they can no longer visit is something special. The happiness they get from the one afternoon a year they get to chat with the local school children is a particular thrill, and you  know what, I think the kids quite enjoy it.
Work colleagues and friends have often heard me rail against the marginalisation of the elderly. We live in a world that is increasingly unfamiliar with  ageing and dying. These most ubiquitous of processes are absent from the lives of many, until some acute event brings it into sharp relief. At work, I often find myself dealing with the shock and guilt of family members who have been unaware of the demise of their relatives, which plays out in many different ways, but is often heralded by anger at the treatment we have offered and a reluctance to accept that someone is dying.
Much of my interest in the marginalisation of the elderly was initiated by some research I did when I was studying for my psychology degree: there is, as I recall, good evidence that when nursing homes are built near schools or nurseries, the elderly residents express better quality of life, and live healthier, longer lives. These benefits are enhanced further when there is interaction between the elderly residents and the children, for example through organising reading groups, where the residents help the children learn how to read.
This always struck me as a very neat solution to an impending problem - that of an ageing population, and reliance on smaller working age population. Enlist the retired into running nurseries, so that people of working age can work more hours, and watch the benefits roll in: children become familiar with what ageing means, death becomes part of the everyday parlance, the elderly become a valued resource and stay healthy for longer, and we maximise the earning potential of those of working age.
And yet we are so far from this vision. The reality is rather different. I have a theory that the prevalence of neglect and abuse of the elderly is so great that we no longer recognise it. I see it all the time, but I see it so often, that sometimes, I have to fight the tendency to put it down to bad luck and poor health. I am referring not just to patients who are admitted to hospital with pressure sores, or malnutrition, but also to patients whose daily life is defined by intense and profound loneliness. I am alerted to this when they are reluctant to leave hospital. No one wants to stay in hospital unless what they are going home to is worse.
Technology offers us many opportunities. I have already met a number of ladies in their eighties, who never leave their houses, but have active social lives supported by email and Skype, who do their supermarket shopping on line, and play online Bingo every week. But technology is not enough. There is no substitute to human contact. On many occasions the most therapeutic thing I have done for a patient is to hold their hand. In a world where our elders are shut away or farmed off, the basic human things that we don’t even bother to value  because they are so everyday become the very essence of happiness. I’ve never asked but I suspect that many elderly people go for weeks without a handshake or a hug.
I would love to live in a world where families and individuals reclaim responsibility for looking after our elders. I would love to live in a world where our elderly are valued for the time and experience that they can offer us. I would love to live in a world where we embrace the beauty of ageing and where we are not afraid to talk about dying. I don’t think that any of these things exist in the UK today, and my message to you is to challenge our view of the elderly.
One day when I was on a night shift, I went to the supermarket in the morning, and I got chatting to an 86 year old lady who was having trouble distinguishing between toilet bleach and washing up liquid (it’s harder than you think, especially when they are next to each other) and she said to me that she hoped she didn’t become one of those miserable old buggers when she got old. I told her that at 86, she probably had a good idea of the person she would grow up to be.
It is people like that lady who are my mascots for change.

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