Last week I heard Phyllida Law being interviewed on ‘Woman’s Hour’. She was talking about her book ‘How Many Camels Are There in Holland?’, which chronicles her mum’s dementia.
At the end of the interview Phyllida was asked whether she had made plans for her own old age. She laughed and said ‘Well, I have two daughters, who are quite helpful already’. The interviewer agreed enthusiastically. ‘Yes, yes I’ve got two daughters too, so…fingers crossed!’
It helps that Phyllida Law’s daughters are Emma and Sophie Thompson – both of them high-profile rescuers of children, the poor, the arts and other people. So it’s fair to suppose that they will indeed look after their mum when she needs it. But if I were anyone else, I wouldn’t take anything for granted.
A friend and close neighbour of my parents, Pat, failed to send Dad a Christmas card this year and I feared the worst. Like Dad she is in her nineties. But when I made enquires I was told that her three daughters – one of whom lives on the other side of the world, another on the east coast of Scotland and the third in the south of England - had decided she should move into a nursing home near Kent. Was she ill? No. Demented? Not at all – she had been playing bridge three or four times a week, and teaching it to novices, along with going about her daily life quite independently.
So why had she moved? The daughter she now lives nearest to is still many miles away and is, according to Pat, very caught up with her own life, her work, her children, her husband – which leaves Pat ‘rather at the bottom of the list of priorities’ according to the letter she sent me when I finally tracked her down. A letter full of loneliness and regret.
This sad news, coupled with the latest research from the Alzheimer’s Society - that 80% of residents in care homes have dementia or some form of severe memory impairment - means that Pat is surrounded by people she can’t really talk to, never mind play bridge with or share a crossword and, even if she could, they don’t know her and have no shared history with her. No wonder she sounds so fed up.
So why did she move? Because, according to another neighbour, her daughters had talked her into it. Were they being forward thinking, or selfish? Had they wanted her to be somewhere she could get help when she needed it – even if she didn’t need it now? Or was it that having Pat in a care home meant that the daughters could cross her off their list of things to worry about. Because she’s in the best place, right?
Pat wants to come back to Glasgow, to her friends and to the places she’s familiar with. She’s tried the care home, for 6 months and has nothing to show for it. She still has a place in Glasgow and has already noted down the name of a local removal company. Her friends and neighbours would rush to hang out the bunting and welcome her back with open arms.
So what’s stopping her? The daughters. They have said they will wash their hands of her if she moves back to Glasgow.
It seems they would rather she paid £1,000 a week to a nursing home for care she doesn’t yet need, to be with people she can’t communicate with and for food so unappetising that she gets a taxi to the nearest town each week to buy food at M&S.
Of course everyone hopes their family will help with life’s most difficult decisions. But I’m not sure that families always know best. It’s not like The Broons where everyone is within walking distance of one another, and in and out of each other’s houses all the time. Families aren’t any longer the people who necessarily know us best.
Many families are, of course, heavily involved with caring for ageing parents, but others have come to expect someone else to do all the work, in much the same way that some parents think it’s the job of teachers to show their children how to read and write.
‘Why should I help my kids with their homework? That’s what we pay teachers for’ is becoming: ‘why do I need to help look after Mum/Dad/Gran – that’s what the social services are there to do.’
There are no easy answers. And perhaps it’s just about the timing. Had Pat moved away 5 or 10 years ago to sheltered housing rather than a nursing home - maybe things would have been very different. She could have made new friends and would doubtless have been at the centre of a vibrant and active social life.
But it seems madness to have moved away now, from the people she knows best and can see every day, in exchange for the hope of an occasional visit from one of her daughters. Just because blood’s thicker than water.
Phyllida Law already lives near her two daughters and is embedded in their lives so she will almost certainly be just fine. But that’s not true of everyone. And what would you rather? To be with your pals, the people whose company you’ve chosen and who know you inside out, or a relative you hardly ever see and who is at a different stage in their life – the stage when they’re rather too busy to fit you in – and don’t have any idea of what it’s like to be elderly and becoming frail. Unlike your buddies who know just what it means, because they are going through it too.
But HOLD THE FRONT PAGE! - I’ve just heard that Pat is on a plane to Glasgow! Apparently she’s just coming for a week's holiday. Bunting is indeed being prepared, card tables erected and restaurant reservations made. More next week……
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