I have a big birthday coming up. It’s making me look carefully at my past. Sitting here, immobile (I broke my ankle a few weeks ago) has given me time to think about the good and the bad, the stupid and the intelligent times in my life. Now, it’s a gathering up of the wisdom – if any – and the chance to ruminate on the sort of person I have become after all these years so full of experiences that make up life.
There are certain events that have impacted on me like atom bombs going off within inches of my heart; the births of my four children. Childbirth is such a visceral, all-encompassing event that you have little time to think about its psychological implications while it’s happening. I had two of my children when I was very young, and the circumstances of those births and the life I lived at that time, has haunted me for years.
How do we, the older generation, pass on to our children clues, sign-posts, advice about how not to make the same mistakes? We can’t. We will be rejected if we try and it was ever so. They will make their own mistakes and live or die by them. But knowing this doesn’t help any parent.
Through life, we need anchors and sometimes we pull them up too quickly, move on too fast, leaving behind a sea-bed of shifting sand. We need help and support, but often, through ridiculous pride, we don’t reach out. Getting older means that we are more likely to need to ask people who are strangers for support – that’s the way life is today. We don’t take it for granted that our children will be there for us, providing help and comfort in our old age.
Our kids don’t feel the pull of conscience, like I did. They take longer for the roles to be reversed. When my mother was my age, I could see that she would, in a few years, need me. She didn’t have to spell it out; I knew.
Today, we are compelled to stay young in mind and body, no matter what the reality of our health is. ‘Old’ people are a burden, a drain on society. They are the people no-one wants, unless they have money and then they are fair game for any unscrupulous con man or woman. And even children can fall into that category.
Most elderly people are terrified of being a burden to anyone. Yet, we have hundreds of old people in this country living their lives in desperate loneliness. They may go for days without seeing anyone. Often they have raised children and cared for them with love, compassion and tenderness. Frequently, they have been left impoverished because the money they earned went on the enormous cost of bringing up those children.
The myth that everyone over 65 is wealthy, has seen good times, can afford a luxurious retirement while their kids cannot afford to eat, let alone buy a house, is totally untrue. Life in the UK in 2014 is tough for a great many old people. We live in a world that is geared up for the young. Old people are ridiculed and patronised a lot of the time, even if they have has successful lives and made huge contributions to their community.
Many people in their seventies who have children, never hear from them. They never phone or call. If you are this age and do not know how to use email or have access to a computer, you are making life difficult for your kids. Children are too busy to phone, too harassed to write and somehow, it’s your fault. That’s the unspoken message. It’s so much easier – and less compassionate – to write one line in an email and convince yourself that you are keeping in touch with Mum or Dad.
The fear that grown-up children have of being suddenly asked to be responsible for their parents is real. They avoid any contact in case they are forced, against their will, to care for them; it’s a thought that horrifies them. Their lives will be ruined. They will be hindered and trapped by ageing parents they have lost all respect for.
There are, thankfully, many families who embrace grandparents, aunts and uncles and see in them that wonderful wisdom that can be passed on and cherished. It’s sad that as time goes on, these families are not highlighted enough. The norm seems to be stories about elderly people who are abused and neglected or dying alone. And does it make any impact? The more you see the same story on TV, the more desensitized you become.
Relationships with adult children can be fraught. As I once heard a wise elderly woman say: ‘You have to keep your mouth shut and your purse open!’ But there has to be a moment in everyone’s life when they accept and acknowledge that their parents are getting old. When they connect on a different level and understand that life is short and they may not be around for very long.
Of course, if the relationship has not been good in the past, it’s not going to improve just because Mum and Dad are getting doddery and forgetting things! Compassion and maturity on both sides is the glue that helps one generation understand another and can lead to happy endings for everyone.