No bingo – please!

“I don’t bloody want to live longer, thank you very much!” This was my father reacting to a news item about another new advance in medicine. His words didn’t surprise me, but the anger behind them did. My parents find themselves, for the first time in their lives, looking at a future where they will be dependent on others – something they both dread. They are comfortably well off and can afford support, but they have become increasingly restricted and rarely get out and about anymore. They have built a life for themselves that means they are quite isolated and, in my eyes at least, offers the comforts that money can buy but few joys. They have both said on several occasions that they feel they are in death’s waiting room.

I’m sure that I’m not the only person for whom the realities of getting older are being starkly illustrated by my parents’ experience. I may be a way off needing to get too practical about my own arrangements for the so-called ‘third age’, but I feel I’m being prodded to start thinking about it seriously. And so I have been taking more notice of articles and programmes about residential homes, supported housing and care for the elderly.

What I see doesn’t fill me with confidence! Tales of failure in care abound in the press. Abuse is all too often hitting the headlines and the costs of any kind of care appear to be spiraling daily. Society, certainly in the UK, is struggling to cope with its aging population. And the baby boomers are coming – demand for care and residential support is set to rocket, just at a time when the coffers are empty. Our government has encouraged privatisation to the point that local authority provision is virtually non-existent. Most care and accommodation is now privately run, for profit rather than for the betterment of our communities.

I have realised that I must think about all of this now. Why the urgency? Because I’m not only unhappy about the options – I think they are totally unacceptable! I know that there are older people happy with their care and some residential centres and their staff are excellent. But these seem to be in the minority. And the current residents of the many homes up and down the country come from a generation that often think it rude to complain. They trust those in authority and look badly on those that kick up a fuss. Having volunteered for a charity working with vulnerable elders, I have seen first hand that few older people are cherished by their communities, respected for their experience or lauded for their achievements and wisdom.

I don’t want a future where my activity is timetabled – ‘Monday afternoon is bingo and on Thursday those nice people come and do a sing-song for us’. I don’t want someone to patronise me and call me ‘dear’. I don’t to sit in a wipe-clean chair, in a row of others, set around the perimeter of a room with a TV on full volume that is never switched off. I don’t want to find myself eating a meat stew because nobody cares that I’m a vegetarian. I don’t want to have to go back in the closet because equality only exists in a policy in a filing cabinet. And I don’t want to pay ridiculous fees for the privilege of such an existence.

So what kind of old age do I want? I would like to buy or build somewhere with a group of people, where I can have my own private space but where there are also community spaces. This way I could be independent and have private time, but I could also share a garden and enjoy a shared meal occasionally. Ideally, it would also offer a greener way of life, if not off the grid certainly part of the way there. But the residents, the community members, would own and run everything themselves.There would be no profiteering business involved – just a community of people running their own lives and employing their own external support as and when needed. And I don’t see why this kind of community shouldn’t have all age groups – a real community. Just because I will be old why would I want to be surrounded only by other old people?

I’m not advocating anything new – this is the way society is supposed to work isn’t it? A community of people, looking after themselves but also looking after others. Pooling resources to buy expertise when required. It’s how taxes and local government were supposed to work, before greed and the needs of big business took priority over tax payers. We can’t change that system overnight, but we can start to build an alternative. And people are already doing this. Communities, coops and co-housing initiatives are starting to make their mark.

I have talked to others about this idea but many are hesitant. It sounds like a good idea but people worry. What happens if you don’t get on with the other people? Easy, I think – you get to know people first. The biggest issue I have found is that people are very reluctant to acknowledge that they could ever be anything other than able to carry on as they are. Younger people seem more open because they can see other benefits – a better environment in which to live and bring up children – a chance to buck the system – a way to create a more sustainable future – a chance to do things differently.

An Englishman’s home is his castle, or so we were told. That idea has never appealed to me so I have no qualms about turning my back on the castle. Instead, why not join some like-minded people and take control not just of our homes but our community, working together to create a future that works, that won’t bankrupt us and won’t leave us at the mercy of ACME Care Inc? If I can be a part of a strong, supportive community, in charge of my own destiny, then hopefully I will never be heard to curse a chance to live longer!

Remembering to be angry

I follow Stella Duffy’s excellent blog – Not Writing But Blogging (see Blogroll on the right for the link) and she got angry a few days ago. As is her wont, when she’s riled up about something she uses her great gift with words to share her thoughts. Her point was about it not being good enough that theatre so poorly represents women – women actors, women directors, women writers and women theatregoers. She went on to say that if the arts world (supposedly more politically left than most arenas) is still ignoring the majority of the population, what chance do minority groups anywhere have in achieving equality?

As a woman I am very aware that women are still far from equal. I am aware generally of how poorly women are represented, treated, paid and so on and do my small bit to challenge this. However, I had made the assumption that theatre at least was an area where things should be better. Theatre is about people and life after all, so how can you represent people and life without women? But the main impact of Stella’s piece that hit home for me is that we have to get gender equality sorted out. If we don’t, regardless of laws and regulations, women will continue to be the also-rans in society.

In many ways I have had a very privileged life. I am independent, I have a job, I am free of major personal oppression, I have the right to vote. But equality, or the need for it, has always been present in my life, albeit it in small ways. As a teenager I fought with my parents over them buying South African produce. My heart sang at Martin Luther King’s impassioned words. I cried myself to sleep when told that it was far more important for my brother to go to university because, as a man, he would have a family to support. I was shocked into silence when my all-male colleagues in my first job refused to have a woman in the office, forcing me to work in a mobile office elsewhere. Years later I resigned when overlooked for promotion yet again because ‘people prefer senior post-holders to be men’. I fought against my sexuality for years because I knew how hard it would be to be gay in a small rural community. And I wrestled with God over a church that turned its back on me when I did come out.

In small ways I have fought back. Some battles I have won, others I lost and some I am still fighting. I’m stubborn and I don’t give up easily! But until Stella’s piece gave me a nudge I suppose I had put gender equality on the back burner. She made me realise that I have almost accepted the status quo, feeling that other areas, like gay rights, at least offer some hope of success. I hadn’t stopped being angry but I had allowed it to be a habit, one that I had stopped noticing really.

But Stella Duffy is right. When the majority of the population can be so easily dominated by the male minority, ultimately other equality battles will never fully succeed. Until those with the power ‘get’ equality and the need for it, all issues of equality will struggle. So I have to get my act sorted, stir up my anger and my indignation. I’m back in the battle!