Tuesday, 20 April 2010

What can we do if we're not grannies?

If we've never had children, it's unlikely we'll have grandchildren. Is not being a granny a deficit identity these days? Several papers have picked up a comment from Joanna Lumley recently on the usefulness of old people. Apparently she has suggested older people could provide a care system for children coming home from school:
'They could be adoptive grannies, they would be the most wonderful care system for children when the school day is ended – before their parents have come home from work, how lovely to have a million grannies making them apple pie and sitting with them doing their homework'.

See Bell, IoS Diary 11 April for more detail, online:
Matthew Bell also mentions that there is a comedy currently running at the National Really Old, Like Forty Five: the elderly are expected to adopt a grandchild as a way of deferring death. Black humour indeed.

Lumley probably sees this adoptive granny proposal as a way of helping older people feel purposeful and valued, as well as part of the community. While this might work for some, I'd hate to see it becoming a widely shared expectation that this is what you do to earn your place as a fully paid-up member of the community. I understand from friends that having children is the best experience that life has to offer, but personally I'm rather happy to have avoided all those chores, all those times of feeling a dimwit because I've spoken to no one but a three year old all day, all that anxiety on behalf of children who I'd (no doubt) continue to think of as children even as they themselves approach middle age.

How terrific then, in the same week to see an article by Diana Athill on moving herself into an old people's home (Guardian Weekend 17.04.10, online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/17/diana-athill-move-old-peoples-home). Athill has always forged her way through challenging events, surviving what are widely regarded as deficit identities, for instance giving uncompromisingly honest and reflective accounts of what it is like to be single, and how she came through after the loss of an early love and accepted her role as career woman, having never held any ambition other than that first articulated at twelve years 'To marry a man I love and who loves me'.

So Athill continues in the same vein of having things happen and dealing with them, and her decision to move into an old people's home was brought about through her recognition that in her 90s, dealing with a bout of flu left her without energy and feeling a need to be looked after. She had been part of a team of friends supporting an old friend, just three months younger than herself, as she wrestled with breast cancer and a broken hip following a fall. Athill knew she didn't want to be a burden to her friends if she became dependent in a similar way. She made her plans in a rational way, but still experienced moments of complete rejection of 'an act of what amounted to self-destruction...I won't, I'd rather die'. Now she has moved into a 'snug little nest' she can think of it as a life free of worries, doing everything she's capable of and knowing she'll be beautifully looked after if need be. 'What could be better?' she says.

We need people like Athill to go before us and point the way to surviving dispreferred options in life. Yet I'm puzzled by her belief that she might have reluctantly accepted being looked after by her children, if she'd had them, but determination that she could not allow herself to become dependent on her friends. There is, after all, a greater possibility of reciprocity with friends, and the acts of mutual helping might be less distant than those enacted as a parent; we choose our friends while we don't choose our family; and it's always possible that children called on in times of great need may have other agendas on their minds. But at the same time as being puzzled, I do have some empathy with Athill's perspective. Having been part of my mother's supportive network, even though at a distance, as well as a first-line advocate for her with the health and social care services, I have often wondered whether there might be anyone available to do similar things for me should I reach a time of great need. Inspired by Athill's example, I plan to think more positively about the option of deciding I need to be looked after and choosing the caring environment that I'm comfortable with. And while I'll hope for some people I'm close to continuing to be around and be affectionate, I will also hope to avoid becoming a number one worry in their lives.

Jill Reynolds

1 comment:

  1. I loved Dianna Athill's article. It reminded me of someone I interviewed a few years ago who had never married or had children - a similar story of the untimely loss of a love - who because of her work had created a loving family of people with whom she had made lasting relationships. Contact with them supported her residence in a care home.

    This was a woman who knew that she would soon need professional help from carers, but who also knew that she could rely on her friends for respect and intellectual stimulation, if not for physical care. For her this made all difference between feeling a burden and being happy to accept the help that she needed.