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Contemplating old age – what it means for all of us

Old age and death are inevitable but we hope that our lives and that of our children are long and fruitful. In spite of this inevitability none of us are prepared for the feelings of grief and loss when one or both of our parents dies.

Old age was made more apparent to me recently when a very dear friend and neighbour, 73 years, passed away.  In less than six months he was dead and it was this stark reality that made me appreciate just how vulnerable my ageing parents are.  The whole experience made me re-examine the relationship I have with them, watching them grow old with grace and humour but with less strength as age takes its toll.  It is difficult to imagine them not being ‘there’.  Their agedness is even more marked as we live far away and we only see them a few times a year.

With our busy working lives, the children’s school activities and saturday school, it makes it very difficult to take a weekend off to see them and so they are the ones that travel to us.  I am only too aware that this window is closing rapidly because my father will tire more easily and find it difficult to drive the two hours to see us.

What will happen when one of them is ill and requires care?  A long car journey two or three times a week isn’t practical when we both work and the children are still in school.

When my eldest child leaves home at 18, my parents will be be 81 years old and I will still be caring for a 14 year old. I may well be faced with the prospect of looking after my younger son as well as ailing parents. Like many of my peers we are faced with the stark reality that our middle age may not live up to the expectations we are hoping for, instead, we face the prospect of caring for our elderly parents.  With children having flown the nest and being middle aged, we can be forgiven for wanting to relax and spend time with our partners, fewer demands from children, more time to take up hobbies and the chance to enjoy life at a slower pace.

Middle age should be a time to consolidate relationships with partners and take stock of our lives and look forward to retirement. Aren’t we entitled to some ‘we’ time after the years spent raising children?

The UK’s ageing population is having a major impact on public services creating extra demands for care and support.  Modern medicine means that people are living longer up from 67 in 1950 to 79 today.  The fastest growing age group is the over 85’s. Fewer people are dying suddenly, instead they decline into chronic conditions which require long term treatment and care; care which the UK is struggling to provide.

A reduction in their rate of income tax, exemption from rising national insurance payments, free TV licences, winter fuel allowances and free transport are some of the benefits the ageing population are entitled to and rightly so. If they’ve been working and contributing all their working years, shouldn’t the elderly be entitled to some comfort in their twilight years?  10,000,000 people in the UK are over 65. In 20 years this is likely to be 15,500,000.  By 2050 it will be over 20,000,000.  There are 3,000,000 over the age of 80 and this is likely to double by 2030.  One in six is over 65 and by 2050 one in four will be.  65% of the Department for Work and Pensions benefit goes to those over working age equivalent to £100 billion in 2010/11 or one-seventh of public expenditure. (ONS)  The number of people aged 60 or over reached 14,000,000 in 2013 and this is expected to rise.

In asian cultures old people are revered rather than frowned upon. In Japan two-thirds of old people live with family, in european countries like Italy, 40 per cent live with their offspring and Spain is similar, in the UK it is 15%.  The extended family is prevalent with children choosing to stay in close proximity of their parents where care can be administered more easily, a care home is often the last resort.  The UK no longer has extended family units with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins all living nearby or in the same household.  We are a society of nuclear families – parents and children only, often living far away from parents.  A socially and geographically mobile generation of which I am a part of, have left home to seek better opportunities, often moving to the other side of the country leaving our parents with no one to care for them but the state.

Over the last fifty years there has seen exponential growth of women in the workplace leaving no one at home to look after elderly parents.  Communities are not so closely knit as they once were and families are smaller.  With four grand-children, I sense my parents sadness, tinged with regret that they weren’t there when my brother and I needed them the most. The distance and the fact they were working until they were 67 was not conducive to a hands-on grandparent grandchild relationship.

As a society we are responsible for looking after the elderly, as children some of that responsibility surely falls on us and as the only daughter most of the responsibility will inevitably fall on my shoulders. My grandmother lived to the age of 93 and the prospect of looking after my mother or father when I’m in my 60s and 70s raises concern.  It may be selfish that I should want some ‘me’ time after my children have left home, hobbies and travelling are what my husband and I are looking forward to not parental care.  I want to spend quality time with my parents but not as a full time carer and not when I am still working full-time with a young family to support.

So who is going to share the responsibility for the long term care of our parents?  We cannot shirk our responsibilities but it is unfair to assume that we should be expected to take on the mantle of caring for them when they need attention and special care at a time of need.  There is no easy answer.

In less than three decades the world’s old will outnumber the under 15s for the first time and as the elderly population grows the working population will shrink.  The problem of elderly care is hurtling toward us like a speeding truck, it is the big elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about and it will take the political will of the main parties to work together and formulate a plan.

As for my parents, I have no idea how I will manage any form of care should either be incapacitated, I don’t have a plan and I, like most offspring assume that ‘it can’t happen to them, they are invincible’.

But of course it will, at some point one or other parent may succumb to a long term illness and we will have to face the music together and whilst I have expressed my concern and anxiety how we will manage as a family neither of us has a plan.

We hold hands, smile and hope that when the time comes we will somehow manage it.   Undoubtedly, I will cross that bridge when I get to it.

Abridged/revised version. First published on 17.06.14

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