February 7, 2010

UK: Granny’s a godsend; don’t make her a burden

. LONDON, England / The Times / Columnists / February 7, 2010 By India Knight Baroness Deech, one of Britain’s most influential family lawyers and chairwoman of the Bar Standards Board, said last week that we should be duty-bound to look after our parents in their old age. “In return for all that grandparents do, should there not be an obligation to keep them, and to keep parents, and reciprocate the care that was given by them to children and grandchildren in their youth?” she said. She also pointed out that grandparents provided free childcare. Baroness Ruth Deech Deech invoked the Elizabethan poor law, which required sons to support their parents and grandparents throughout their lives (for daughters the obligation lasted only until they married). The duty was repealed in England and Wales in 1948, with the rest of the poor law, but lasted in Scotland until 1985. She pointed out that legal obligations existed in other countries — in France, for instance, there is a limited duty to support members of the wider family, known as l’obligation alimentaire. In Singapore, the Maintenance of Parents Act of 1995 means that anyone over 60 who can’t maintain themselves adequately “can apply for an order that their child should do so”. Deech admitted that making it law to care for one’s parents would bring problems with it — inter-family bickering about whose turn it was to look after the aged parent and so on, and that a legal obligation “would certainly become a burden on the women in the family, whose independence and career progression would take a setback”. When I was growing up, my maternal grandmother lived with us for years, which appeared to work well and to enhance everyone’s life — our granny had masses of company and felt useful and needed, we children forged a proper relationship with her, she was full of interesting stories and so on. Nevertheless, I don’t understand how forcing people to look after their elderly relatives would work. For a start, Deech seems to put too much emphasis on the question of free childcare: for the baby-boomer generation, “old age” is late youth, and I know plenty of grandparents who love their grandchildren but have no interest in being their nanny. If you want them to babysit, you have to ask weeks in advance and comparing diaries often makes you feel like a social pariah. Secondly, women are having children so much later in life that their parents are older, too: babysitting your boisterous grandchildren works better at 50 than at 72. The extended family — three generations under one roof, jostling along amiably — works beautifully in all sorts of cultures, from India to Africa to parts of Europe. But those are all cultures that venerate the elderly. This is, sadly, not true of Britain, where old people have a tough time of it: we are all familiar with the scenario where a pensioner who has been put in a “home” is lucky if his family visit once a year. More than half of British people aged over 75 live alone, many on pitiful pensions, and 400,000 more live in “homes”. A recent poll showed that more than a million of them felt lonely “often or always”. And then there are the horrific stories of abuse in old people’s homes that pop up with depressing regularity. Clearly something’s got to give — tax breaks would be a start, and paying the babysitting OAPs — but legally forcing people to become carers is not the answer. It appeals to me on sentimental grounds, because it would be a beautiful thing to care for those who spent so many decades of their life caring for you. Morally, it makes absolute sense. Then I apply my sentimentality closer to home — to my late father, who had cancer and Alzheimer’s, the extra-horrible kind where, instead of being absent but at least reasonably content, he was absent and raging, roaring, terrified and terrifying. And doubly incontinent. Not an unusual situation — and neither was our personal circumstance, which is that my parents separated when I was small. I wasn’t raised by my father and although I loved him, I didn’t know him in the way that people who have two parents under the same roof know their father. At the time that his illness set in, I was barely 30 and at home with two small children; I had no income because I stopped work to look after them and relied entirely on my husband for money. I would love to say that I was the kind of person who hopped on a plane and brought him to my house to soothe his last years. But I wasn’t. He was looked after by family members in Brussels, where he lived, and eventually — some years later — I went back to work and earned enough to pay for him to end his days in a clinic in the Ardennes. The last time I saw him alive, he was tied to a chair in something resembling a straitjacket; when I asked why, I was told that his rages made him want to run away — and who could blame him? The clinic had glass doors; he would run through the glass and injure himself, hence the restraints. It does not make me feel good. But neither does it make me regret that he never ran through the glass doors in my house instead. Aside from anything else, he was 6ft 2in and strong as an ox: I’d have had enormous difficulty looking after him physically. It’s all incredibly sad. The way we treat old people is incredibly sad; the fact that we’re going to be old people treated the same way is incredibly sad, too. But the model Deech proposes relies on the functioning nuclear family as a model and nuclear families are thin on the ground. What’s the only child, now a single woman earning her own living, supposed to do with someone like my dad? What are the children of someone who got their mother pregnant and then waltzed off supposed to do when he comes back decades later — give up the life they have carefully mended for themselves in the name of duty and the law? And of course, even in the rosiest situation — no dementia, physical wellness — it will, as Deech rather afterthought-ishly points out, usually fall to women to do the extra work. Women who are knackered, who work, whose brains sometimes can’t cope with the endless juggling, who don’t see enough of their children as it is, who are no longer living in the 1930s. So, no. Wonderful idea, and hats off to the thousands of people who live with their parents or grandparents and care for them, but you can’t legislate wishful thinking about filial duty into being. In Britain, at least, that particular horse bolted some time ago. + Apparently the time for the swine flu “epidemic” has passed. The latest figures show that the number of reported cases of H1N1 in England is near its lowest weekly level since the disease first came to the UK, and the number of people receiving antivirals through the National Pandemic Flu Service has declined sharply. The 24-hour helpline will close next Thursday. All cheering until you remember that 19 people have died in the past fortnight. I caught a cold three weeks ago and have been feeling horrendous since — days in bed barely able to move or speak, uncomfortable furniture hurting my bones, random temperatures followed by random shivering, constant nausea and so on. I stopped talking about it about 10 days in, because I felt slightly embarrassed still to be ill. It occurred to me only last Tuesday, comparing notes with a friend who is similarly afflicted, that we may well have had swine flu without knowing it — I never made it to the doctor’s because I thought I just had a super-hideous cold that went on for a freakishly long time. I think I’m on the mend, so I guess I’ll never know, but the thought that I might have been part of the pandemic without realising is peculiar. I have to lie down again now. [rc] India Knight was born in 1965 and lives in London with her three children. She writes a weekly column for The Sunday Times; her novels and non-fiction are published by Penguin. She has blogged about bringing up a child with special needs and her personal blog is here. Copyright 2010 Times Newspapers Ltd.