February 3, 2010

UK: Elderly people are not a burden to be dumped

. LONDON, England / The Telegraph / Lifestyle / Health / February 3, 2010 Our attitude to old age robs people of humanity and value, argues Tamsin Oglesby. By Tamsin Oglesby Fear prompted me to write my new play, Really Old, Like Forty Five. It explores what it's like to grow older in an ageist society – one not entirely unlike our own. The terrible inspiration came after taking my children to visit my mother-in-law at a nursing home. The sheer loneliness, redundancy and inactivity that I witnessed sent chills down my spine; and it's impossible to watch your parents age without putting yourself in their position. The elderly must not be written off as a burden Photo: PA Faced with the reality of our ageing demographic, the issue has moved from the personal domain into the political. Baroness Deech's suggestion yesterday that children should be compelled to look after their parents or grandparents is just the latest contribution to a fraught debate. My play imagines what would happen if we failed to come up with any solutions. It is set mid-21st century, with Alzheimer's disease as the biggest problem facing society and the state taking it upon itself to carry out experiments on pensioners to find a cure. Once they pass a certain age, citizens are given the "choice" of going into a hospital (the Ark), where they have the "opportunity" to contribute to medical research. The cruelty behind the euphemism becomes clear when an old lady who has a fall has a leg removed and stem cells harvested. This is a dystopian world, of course – my aim was to use the same comic shock tactics as Jonathan Swift, who suggested in his satire A Modest Proposal that, when tackling hunger, an eight-pound baby would feed a family of four. But within every dystopia is a plausible core idea. The sort of utilitarian language bandied about today – the elderly are a "burden"; they create a "burden of care" – strips old people of their humanity and value. Once you decide that old people are a problem, it isn't a great leap to imagine culling them quietly by the back door. Our attitude towards the elderly has changed radically in recent years. Anyone born after the war has lost that automatic, unthinking respect for authority – and as a consequence, we no longer value age and experience in the same way. It's a case of swings and roundabouts. There used to be little respect for the young; now our culture fetishises youth, but has little respect for the old. Part of this is simply down to the numbers – people used to live for only a few years after retirement, but now life expectancy in England has climbed to 80, and rates of dementia have risen. These trends pose a challenge, but it is not one that the Government alone can tackle. Meddling legislation which seeks to reinstate the Poor Laws by making children financially responsible for their parents will only breed resentment. If you have a strong filial bond, you will want to do the right thing – the state cannot recreate that. What we can try to do, though, is to change the tone of the debate. For every conversation about the awfulness of old age, we need a parallel one on its merits. This doesn't have to be wishful thinking, as long as we can find a way of reconnecting the younger generation with the older, to combat the idea that old age is a different country. These don't have to be grand projects. I know of a primary school which invites retired people to talk to the children about the playground games they used to play. Having seen the way my own children lit up that dreary nursing home, and the benefits they have gained from being close to their grandparents, it seems obvious that we should find ways of reintegrating the old, rather than writing them off. I would hate the more brutal elements of my play to become fact. [rc] 'Really Old, Like Forty Five', opens at the National Theatre's Cottesloe Theatre on Friday © Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2010