So what brought this on? Was it the lonely old man on the moon that John Lewis gave us this Christmas or is it a natural consequence of the changing relationship with my own mum. She now lives in a care home (read more here) and I am largely responsible for her wellbeing but the whole experience has made her worried about who will look after me when I grow old?
She worries because I don’t have children. It’s not new – she’s been saying it for years – but her current circumstances have highlighted just how important family support is. She cannot imagine how lonely life would be without her children and sisters, or how vulnerable she would be without any advocates. And there we have it – what will I do if I am widowed? What will my single friends do? The short answer is that we will have to look after ourselves. But of course that is just the kind of thought that surfaces in the middle of the night and demands more careful consideration before I get another wink of sleep.
AgeUK have launched a campaign to raise awareness of the problem of isolation and loneliness amongst older people: ‘no one should have no one’ estimates that:
This figure is set to rise. Between 2005 and 2015 there was a 23% increase in the number of people living alone in the 45 to 64 age group according to the Office of National Statistics. This is due to the increased birth rate in the 1960s and a higher proportion of these babyboomers have divorced or remained single. Some of my single friends have already described the loneliness that surfaces sometimes – for instance when they’re ill – and the realisation that no-one might notice, for a few days at least, if they died.
So what do we do, those of us without a family to look out for us? Do we need to start building relationships now that will be supportive in the future? No-one could have predicted the success of online social networks but perhaps this illustrates a basic need we have to be connected to one another. While we might snigger about our eligibility for the over-50s club there are obvious benefits in creating local social networks through mutual interests. In the last few years I joined a gardening club and I’m also active in our area’s quite new, and hopefully ironic, WI. Now, for the first time in London, I meet someone I know in the street almost every time I leave the house. When you start to engage with the community the rewards are not just about making new friends. There are several Grand Dames among the gardeners who, despite being the wrong side of 80, throw themselves into every community activity and remain incredibly vital and alive. If old age is best navigated with an active body and mind they seem to have found the secret.
It might just be the wine talking but I have had more than one conversation about the idea of forming a ‘community’ of old biddies who can buy or rent a big house in the country and club together to spread the cost of Netflix, carers and mobile hairdressing. It’s a business model already established in the concept of retirement villages but the idea of a DIY version where you get to choose your companions is very appealing. The concept lies somewhere between ‘Friends’ and ‘The Golden Girls’. Of course negotiating what happens when one of the gang deteriorates or shows signs of dementia needs to be considered but it’s got to be a lot more fun than being on your own.
My mum worries because I have no kids but do children guarantee a happier old age? Of course not. There is no doubt that the joy of grand-parenting is an unexpected pleasure in early retirement and that busy modern families require grandparents to muck-in. But as the grandchildren grow older visits naturally decline and homework and school friends take priority. Elderly couples can be quietly self-sufficient and make do with very little from their loved ones: Christmas, occasional phone calls and skype. This cosy companionship can make the isolation that follows the death of a partner all the more overwhelming. Grief and depression can take away any motivation to make new friends. In some respects those who have never relied on a spouse, or were younger when they found themselves on their own, are more resourceful and independent, having already spent years filling their social calendars to avoid loneliness.
When health begins to deteriorate local authorities rely on families to ‘top up’ the social care that they can provide. The Office for National Statistics reported
What this care consists of can differ enormously and depends on many factors including the proximity of family members and their other commitments. The most important thing that I have observed is that however small the input from families, when an elderly person has an advocate their rights are more likely to be protected.
I think our generation will be altogether more demanding than our parents. We have been raised to be more selfish than current 80-somethings who lived through a world war and learned to live with what life dealt them. I don’t see us quietly slipping into invisibility in the same way. In fact I think we are going to make a big noise when it comes to our turn. I am hoping that, by the time I get there, we will also have choices between palliative care and a more dignified exit (and if we don’t I hope to be able to make a trip to Europe).
It just makes me sad that we are not doing more for those who are vulnerable right now. Mum’s right – we all need a hug and a hand to hold.