Different planets

For older people, living with their children
may appear to be the ideal solution to the problem of care. But the
divide between the generations brings problems of its own, writes
Peter White.

When my wife and I invited my mother to come
and live with us, my intentions were simple, and almost certainly
hopelessly na‹ve. I wanted her to enjoy the rest of her life,
and for some reason I believed the best way to achieve that was for
her to be with us.

hasn’t worked, and for that I feel a mixture of guilt, puzzlement,
and irritation that I foresaw and have been able to change so
little of what is wrong. Let’s just accept that generalisations are
dangerous, but it seems to me that the issue of choice for older
people is not so much about where they live, and their pattern of
care – if they need it – but about who has time, and patience, to
share your time and concerns with you.

Whether people continue to live
in their own home, or go into sheltered accommodation, or into
residential care, or go to live with children, what they really
need to achieve happiness, as opposed to mere existence, are people
with whom to share memories, and current concerns alike. And that’s
what it seems so difficult for professionals and relatives to

seems to me that something fundamental has happened in the
relationship between the generations.

most fundamental has to do with longevity; partly because it means
people are old for longer and are dealing with the irritations of
loss of faculties that are now not life-threatening, just annoying
and debilitating; but longevity also means that all the
generational stages go on longer: middle age, young adulthood,

this means is that those most likely to have the caring role, the
middle-aged, are sandwiched between people who all need their time,
energy, and forbearance; older relatives, grown-up children trying
to make their way and needing various kinds of support, and
children themselves, who now seem intent on prolonging childhood
beyond all previously known limits.

If it
were just that, it might be manageable, but manners and fashions of
interaction have also changed radically. By and large, middle-aged
people, trying to retain their youth, have leaned toward the new
fashion: brevity, cynicism, irony, being slightly flip. When you
combine all that with the pace of life, the demands of work, and
the barrage of information that pours in on us, and it means that
many middle-aged people and their elderly parents are living on a
different planet from each other. The need we all have, to talk to
people about things we have in common is not fulfilled; we now care
about different things. Even families, something that could in the
past be relied upon to provide a common bond, are difficult,
because mores are so different. Often, we don’t know what to say
that won’t cause offence, shock, or just indifference.

If I
seem to be suggesting by this that older people are out of touch,
dull, stupid, then forgive me, that’s not what I mean. What I mean
is that the frames of reference of our lives are often so
different, that there is little common ground.

And if
all this sounds like a prolonged excuse for my own failure, then to
some extent I would plead guilty. But it is not easy to cope with
the mutual misunderstanding that can occur when my mother wants to
talk about the length of the queue in the chemist to get a
prescription, and the precise date on which the old Crystal Palace
caught fire, and you have been grappling all day with complex
budgets, difficult customers, or your own management. Knowing that
you should take longer, go slower, interact more, is not the same
as being able to do it.

think this difficulty is not culturally exclusive to the west,
either, as we tend to think. In South Africa a couple of years ago
I spent some time with a middle-class Indian couple. The wife’s
mother lived with them. It very quickly became clear talking to the
daughter, that we shared exactly the same mixture of guilt,
irritation, and inability to work out how to make things

Perhaps if we all stopped
thinking about natural stages of life as a problem, and stopped
beating ourselves up quite so much, things would improve on their
own. And that goes for you too, mum!

White is the BBC’s disability affairs correspondent.

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