Thinking about my grandmother, she had a great life, she only really struggled to get about in her final couple of years but, even though she was active and fit, her enthusiasm for living seemed to diminish. She was 63 when I was born and so always seemed to me to be old. She had been widowed in her early 50s and lived the rest of her life alone. I always find it curious that she had a life as a wife and mother of 4 but then lived almost as long again as a single woman.
As a little girl I was particular close to her as she provided an oasis of calm in an otherwise large boisterous family. In the late 1960s she moved from what had been her family home into a flat, which all seemed incredibly exciting to me. Flats were fairly new then replacing the condemned terraced housing which had always dominated the city. I loved the fact that she had a lift, a veranda and a rubbish shute, all of which seemed modern and sophisticated. Ironically, those same flats, that were so new and shiny back then, are now squalid slums where nobody in their right mind would want to live by choice.
When I was about 8 or 9, I ventured over to the dark side and decided I wanted to do tap, ballet and acro, which was all the rage, although tellingly not with anybody I knew. I endured the mirth of my no-nonsense aunts and the disbelieving head shakes of friends and located a class. It was held in a church hall every Saturday morning, just a short walk away from my grandma’s flat. During what I like to think of as my insane period, given that I had zero aptitude for tap, ballet or acro, it became my Saturday routine after dance class to spend the day with my grandma. She taught me how to bake scones and custard tarts and tried, unsuccessfully it has to be said, to teach me how to knit. Our days together were defined by peaceful, quiet activities.
My grandma loved to read and always had a big pile of books waiting to be devoured. Her genre of choice was romance and I was mystified as to why, gaping incredulously at the repulsive looking men on the front covers, presumably put there to get ladies all of a dither. I began to take my own books and comics and we would sit silently alongside each other for hours on end, each lost in our respective fictional world.
I was fortunate to have a lot of people who were a part of my childhood but my maternal grandmother stands out as a unique influence. She was different to my paternal grandmother, who was always harried and busy, with a boozy husband and 7 children still at home. My maternal grandma had the time and space to chat and she would talk about things that other adults tended to keep from children. Big things, like death and family betrayal. Death was no stranger to her; in addition to her husband she had also lost 2 of her 4 children when they were only in their 30s. Her mother had died when she was a young teenager and her father, rather bizarrely, very quickly married her mother’s sister who, perhaps even more bizarrely, forced grandma and her 2 sisters out of the family home and into service as maids. Looking back, by the time I arrived on her doorstep, she was clearly lonely and possibly treated me as an adult because she had no one else to talk to. Her remaining two daughters were both busy taking care of families of their own.
Sadly our closeness didn’t really last beyond that year or so. I became disenchanted with tap, ballet and acro when it became obvious, during a rather humiliating not to mention ill advised black and white minstrel show, that I had two left feet and lacked both grace and poise. As I became older and moved away from my home town, I saw my grandma less and less frequently. I would send her the occasional letter and visit her at Christmas but that was about it. She died in an old people’s home, debilitated after a stroke, and, when I returned to Sheffield for her funeral, I hadn’t seen her in over a year.
She had remained in that same flat, the one that had seemed so appealing in the late 1960s. By the mid 90s though it had already become part of a run down, charmless estate, where old people feared venturing out after dark and local businesses and amenities had shut up shop and moved elsewhere. Her final years then must have been spent trapped in what was essentially a three storey prison, able only to watch the world go by from the safety of a securely locked window. It’s shameful that this was her destiny but she was surely not the one. What’s more, as we live longer and longer, will this be the fate for more and more of us or will out destiny be even worse?
In an ideal world, we would care for our elderly the way that other cultures do - cultures such as India, where several generations live together in family homes. Realistically though, how can this happen as families become more distanced in terms of locality and fewer people are choosing family life for themselves? I have friends who are caring for elderly parents whilst juggling full time jobs and children of their own and many of them are at breaking point. Were I elderly I would hate to think that I was a burden on my loved ones but, how could that not be the case in a society where most people are struggling to make ends meet and can’t afford to live in houses big enough to accommodate several generations.
It’s all well and good then celebrating the progress that will allow many of us to see our 90s and maybe even beyond but, frankly, I’m not convinced it’s going to be all that great. As a childless woman, there’s little doubt that I’ll end up in some old people’s home, dependent upon the kindness of strangers. Presumably I’ll be stripped of all my assets in order to pay for the privilege of living in a shoe boxed size room and, if I’m lucky, not being abused by poorly paid people who despise their jobs. It’s pretty much a given then that I’ll be unable to afford the airfare to Dignitas, which would surely be preferable.
That being said, growing old is a luxury not afforded to everyone. My dad died when he was only 63 and so didn’t even get to retirement age. Maybe I should just shut up and be grateful for whatever time I’m allotted.