I want something to do

I grew up in the tradition that working life ended for women at 60
and for men at 65. Then followed a few years when older people were
entitled to rest after their labours until terminal decrepitude
finally released them from this weary world. It is on this
assumption that the provision of care for older people is
apparently still based.

There is no recognition of the fact that instead of dying off
before we reach our mid-70s, it is much more likely that many of us
will live until we are 90 or even 100. The implications of this for
housing, pensions, welfare and family life are simply ignored.
There is a gap, a black hole, in our concept of community

At first, retirement is for many a happy release from regular
employment – an opportunity to travel, take up voluntary work or go
fishing. But inevitably, for all of us decrepitude relentlessly
overtakes us. In my own case it came with an abruptness that was
shocking. I had led a happy life as a voluntary worker and
councillor until my 90s. I tripped on a paving stone and my
subsequent state of dependency brought home to me the startling
realisation that I had fallen into the gap.

Unable to bathe myself, I applied to the ever-helpful social
services for assistance only to be told that there was a two-year
waiting list for domiciliary care because the funds for that
service had been spent. I had outlived the available resources.
What an experience this life in the gap is proving to be. Social
services has organised transport to take me to a day centre for a
weekly bath.

A plethora of caring services are offered to me, for which I am
deeply grateful. Yet I remain dissatisfied, hungry for something, I
know not what. Despairing sociologists beg me and my kind to tell
them what we need or want. Struggling to articulate what it is that
I hanker after, I have come to realise that my trouble is that all
this concern focuses on my physical needs. The well-being of me,
Margaret, is nobody’s business.

What, then, do I want? It is assumed that I must be lonely and that
being lonely means a lack of company. In fact, I am fortunate in
having so many visitors that my son proposes to stick a notice on
my door saying: “Do not disturb. Keep out”.

Peel away the assumptions and what is left is, in fact, a deep
sense of exclusion. I don’t belong. I am not one of “them”. I have
no role, no place in our community. “They” come to do “good” to me.
My relationship with “them” is all get and no give, a sad and
demeaning experience.

The clue to the problem of the exclusion of older people lies in
the relationship between those who run the services and those who
are supposed to benefit from them. Older people must be emancipated
from their present state of helpless dependency. They must be
allowed their fair share of responsibility for their own well-being
and that of the community to which they belong. Here is the last
cause I mean to fight.

Margaret Simey is 96, a former county and city councillor
in Liverpool and a community activist.

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