The new normal

Three years ago today my mother died. It was very sudden, very unpleasant and very distressing for my family. For me personally it was very strange. I stepped into the role of organising everything, being the sensible, capable one that just sorted it all out. That role meant that I could do the whole stiff upper lip thing – holding my father up, reassuring him – so I embraced the endless paperwork thankfully.

My Mum and I never had the closest of relationships, not helped by my parents’ total reluctance to accept me for who I really am, rather than the person they chose to see, or wished to see. My being gay was at best an embarrassment, at worst a cruel way of denying them what they had hoped for in a daughter. I was never able to deliver the fairy tale wedding, the doctor or lawyer husband, the joy of adoring grandchildren. The fact that I probably wouldn’t have delivered any of that if I had been heterosexual is somehow irrelevant.

Over the years, I had stopped trying to make them see that their choices were not for me and just settled for polite conversation that conveniently glossed over anything that might trigger any kind of upset. I still tried to quietly voice alternative perspectives, but in an attempt to nudge rather than transform. I suppose I had hoped that, with societal change, my parents too would come to realise that not being like them wasn’t a crime. For example, that being gay was hardly the worst thing to happen – that it was just a different normality.

With the suddenness of my mother’s death came the realisation for me that my opportunity to reach her, to have a conversation woman to woman rather than disappointed mother to disappointing daughter, was gone forever. My grief was for 60 years of lost conversation and understanding – for what might have been if we had been able to find our way to a place of acceptance. What a waste!

That lesson learned, I have been trying to build a better understanding with my father. I don’t know if I’m getting anywhere. We differ in so many ways – our politics are miles apart, our tastes are different, our aspirations are different. I have never wanted the kind of future that my father worked so hard for all his life – something that never helped our relationship. The gay thing? I mention it and he avoids it, like an unpleasantness in the family that must go unmentioned. If I had a partner I know that she would not be welcome to stay at his home. It wouldn’t be spoken, but it would be made obvious, just as it always has been.

We were both adjusting to the new normal of it just being he and I when I visit him. Without Mum there to tell us not to, we are finally free to discuss politics and the state of the nation, to argue even, and that is good. It’s several notches closer to the kind of honesty I would hope for in my family. He even admits that he is now freer to make friends with his neighbours and he has built a rewarding social life for himself, without my mother’s hermit-like preferences holding sway.

Another issue that we can discuss is his fear for his own future. His health improved without the strain of caring for my mother, but now is declining in small steps. He adapted remarkably well to his widowed state, despite being crushingly lonely at times. But the thought of being dependent on the carers that visited three times a day for my mother is haunting him. Just thinking of the potential need for the sort of care that he sees as involving loss of dignity has been enough to trigger conversations around ‘do not resuscitate’ notices. He saw the distress that such care caused my mother and in that he sees a future that he is unwilling to accept but feels is inevitable.

For me, I see nothing that so many others in my age group haven’t seen and experienced in their own families. But like so much of life, it is only when you personally experience something that the harsher truths are laid bare. How many times have we heard new mothers say ‘nobody tells you about….’? How many of us were shocked and appalled by the truths of the menopause – ‘nobody tells you…’? I have long saluted women that go through childbirth. I came to hugely respect women who somehow manage to hold down a job and run a family when the menopause is tearing away at their physical and mental wellbeing. And now here I am joining another sisterhood – those with aging parents facing life’s biggest questions.

I thought in my youth that my life bumped into to a new normal on a regular basis, most of which I deftly swerved. But that was nothing compared to now. There seems to be a new normal lurking round every corner. But I have observed that many people, as they get older, simply accept their new normality, stepping into it with a reluctant shrug. I have also observed that those who get the most joy out of life, at any age, are those that flick off most versions of normality. And so we will each go about adjusting our lives one way or another, accepting or refusing each encroaching new reality and we will find our way to our own new normal.

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!

A chink of light in an unexpected place

I went to see my elderly parents recently and we were talking about politics – always a risk given that we come from very different perspectives. But I had a surprise in store.

My parents are lifelong Tory voters. In UK politics that means well right of centre. Thankfully they are not too far right, so I was brought up to respect and value other cultures and knowing that fairness was important. But they think being gay is a choice, a very bad choice at that, and talk about young single mothers as if it should be illegal to have children out of wedlock. They think my left wing tendencies are a misguided phase, much like my sexuality I suppose. I usually bite my tongue in order to keep a semblance of peace during my visits.

Since David Cameron became Prime Minister, they have been full of praise for him and his team. “He’ll sort things out now we’ve got rid of the Labour party!” So when my father started talking about the recession, I braced myself for a lecture on why austerity will do the country good. Instead, I heard a different note. They had been trying to find a new savings account, but were worried about the state of the banks. They were shocked by recent events and felt they couldn’t trust the banks anymore. And why is it that bankers are making millions when ordinary people like them are seeing their hard earned savings shrink before their eyes?

As I tried to take this shift on board, my mother started talking about the various debacles around the organising of the Olympics. My mother kicked off with: “These people are useless aren’t they – good organisation has been something this country has always been proud of! How could they get such basic things wrong?” Then my father chimed in “It’s because they’ve used private companies. You can’t expect people to put the country first when they’re busy lining their own pockets! They should have used public services and the armed forces from the start – they know what they’re doing.”

My mother took the ball and ran with it. “There’s too much ‘old boy network’ about all of this. Work goes to companies their friends or their families run. None of them have any idea about real life – they all went to private school, posh universities and walked into trust funds and political posts. They haven’t a clue what life is like for ordinary people!” “My father nodded. “They must think we’re daft if they think we can’t see what’s going on! While pensioners like us watch our income going down every month, these people are milking the country dry and hiding it all in tax havens.”

My father then said something I never thought I would hear. “When it comes to voting next time I really don’t know what I’ll do.” “Well I won’t be voting for this shower, that’s for sure,” said my mother. My father said he would never vote for Labour, and after watching Nick Clegg in action, he certainly couldn’t trust the Liberal Democrats. “But I can’t vote Tory – not after the utter shambles they have made of everything. They’ve got all these advisers and they can’t even think through the impact of taxing hot pasties! Useless – the lot of them!” He went on: “I think UKIP will do well, but I won’t vote for them – too much xenophobia for my liking. And if we’re not a part of Europe, who do we rely on – America? We’re a tiny island that the rest of the world would love to see in trouble – the anti-Europe lobby needs to keep that in mind.”

My mother was in her stride now, as she pointed out something she had read earlier this week. “It’s young people I worry about. These people are being forced to work or they lose their benefits. I don’t agree with the benefits culture, but forced labour – that’s going back to the days of the workhouse. It’s no way to encourage people to better themselves. There are small businesses around here closing every day because the banks won’t lend them money. It doesn’t make sense – help small businesses and they create jobs – then you don’t need what amounts to slavery.”

My father wasn’t going to be left out. “And all this tax dodging – what’s that about? Haven’t these people any decency? If you make money you pay your share of tax – that’s how the country grows and everyone benefits. This selfishness – I don’t know where it comes from – it’s not what being British is all about.”

I drove home deep in thought. My parents will never agree with my politics, but knowing that they are so disenchanted is important. It means that change really is possible. Older middle-class people are crucial for the Tories. Cameron thinks he can rely on them come what may. Well Dave, I have a surprise for you! If you’ve lost my parents, you have lost many, many others. You have gone too far. The bankers, the big corporations, the people lining their pockets – they have all gone too far.

After visiting my parents I usually come home feeling pretty down. It tends to take me a good couple of days to regain my usual optimism. This time, however, it feels like hope and change is a bit closer. Blimey!