Oliver Cross: Care home conundrum we all need to co-operate on

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Y MOTHER died at home, my father died in a home. There’s a world of difference.

When I was a young boy, there was an old man (I didn’t know who he was, because in those days adults generally didn’t explain things to children) who lived in my grandmother’s house.

I didn’t see him often because my grandmother lived in a different town to my parents, which, indicating radical social change, would have been unusual until the mid-20th century.

The old man seemed to spend all his time in bed and didn’t speak intelligibly but smiled a lot. My grandmother explained that this was because he was in his second childhood – a kindly, though inaccurate, way of describing the horrors of dementia.

I have no memory of whether he was incontinent or prone to the fits of anger or delusion ‘second childhood’ can bring and I don’t know what effort it took to keep this man, possibly my great-grandfather, comfortable and safe.

But my grandmother was born under Queen Victoria and the possibility of confining the old man to an institution – or even a top-of-the-range nursing facility – would probably not have occurred to her.

Charles Dickens’s stories are scattered with characters (Barnaby Rudge, Mr Smallweed, Tiny Tim, or Miss Haversham, for example) who, like my grandmother’s lodger, are mad, idiotic, decrepit, disabled or otherwise in need of a Care Plan.

Mr Dick, in David Copperfield, suffers from delusions and learning difficulties but is rescued from the horrors of a lunatic asylum by the eccentric Betsy Trotwood, who, like all the best carers, focuses on his good points rather than on his deficiencies as a contributing member of society, although she can only do this because she has money.

This was how things were done before the establishment of the welfare state and nursing and care homes, although the old word ‘asylum’, taken to mean a place of safety in a hostile world, might be more accurate and reassuring than the word ‘home’ in its modern usage.

My father’s nursing home, though perfectly adequate, was most unhomely, with institutional furniture, chairs set out in rows and the constant drone of Radio One, turned up to please the young, minimally-paid staff rather than the ‘residents’ (which is another dodgy word; residents’ associations exist for those who live in houses or flats, not for those who live in Homes).

My mother’s last home, in which she had lived for decades, wasn’t as clean or as functional as the nursing home, but it had the special quality of being a home.

So what are the choices? The Victorians had large extended families which could often absorb misfits and the disabled and, if they couldn’t, were could rest assured that these burdens on society would pass away fairly swiftly.

Now some people are living so long that their children grow too old to look after them, even if they have the time, which is unlikely given that the neo-liberal model demands that people work longer and longer for less and less until they drop.

So we need new thinking on how to deal with ageing disabled or demented people. The government has already suggested a way forward by its evident determination to dismantle the NHS, which is likely to produce a reduction in longevity – longevity being, in health economics, the enemy of efficiency.

But I think, if things go on as they are, that the real answer might be to show greater kindness towards people in difficulty and to open care and retirement homes, possibly on a co-operative model, designed to enrich people rather than health-care corporations.

I ENJOYED Germany’s victory in the World Cup because it showed that the Germans are good at achieving things and that maybe if we adopted some of their long-termist, socially-responsible industrial policies, we would all be better off.

I also enjoyed the sight of Chancellor Angela Merkel jumping for joy at the German victory. This was, I’m told, as unfeigned as it looked; Mrs Merkel is a genuine football fan and always has been.

If David Cameron had had occasion to jump for joy at an English football victory (note that this is purely theoretical), he would have looked very unconvincing because, like Ed Miliband, he can’t really do spontaneity and anyway his favourite team game is probably rugger.

Another reason to welcome the German win was that it was not accompanied, in the British press, by the kind of national clichés formed in the aftermath of the Second World War. There were no references to ruthless German efficiency or Blitzkriegs or the kind of half-wit headline-writing which produced the Daily Mirror’s ‘Achtung! Surrender! For you, Fritz, ze Euro ’96 championship is over.’

This may be because the generation of journalists (including me) brought up on war comics and beating-the-Jerries games is now largely out of action, or because, which, which would be even better, the English have grown up a little.

Incidentally, I had all these thoughts while watching the less-than-thrilling World Cup final because otherwise I might have fallen asleep. I really need lots of goals or biting incidents to fully engage with football because, unlike Mrs Merkel, I’m not true fan.

I WAS WATCHING the Tour de France on TV this week when it occurred to me that cycling, as a spectator sport, is really rather dull and that cycling commentators should be paid enhanced rates on the ground that they have to work so very hard to find anything interesting to say, not that they often do.

I also noticed that the crowds which turned out for the Tour de France in France were far smaller than the millions who turned out for the Tour de France in Yorkshire, and that the French route was sparsely-decorated with the yellow bicycles which may become a permanent feature of the Yorkshire countryside, surviving long after people have forgotten why they were placed there.

As the tour passed through small French towns, I saw no great surge of enthusiasm. At one point, in pelting rain, most of the small crowd dispersed, leaving, as the most prominent spectator, a man, evidently a Brit, holding a huge Union Jack umbrella. Really the French have much to learn about holding the Tour de France.

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