Growing Old Gracefuly
When visiting the elderly sick in Hospital, or in nursing homes, many different scenes can be observed. A few hours of sitting, listening and looking around reveals much about the society in which one lives, and in a short time, the most important lessons of ageing can be learnt. Just look and you will see old people with sons, daughters and grandchildren filing in and out of their hospital rooms, surrounded by flowers, cards and gifts. Next to them, people gazing blankly at the ceiling, having not met a familiar face since falling ill. It is the latter scenario that most people fear in their old age. Unfortunately, it is a growing minority that is destined for this situation.
Many elderly are practically childless. They may have several sons and daughters (whom they already rarely see), but in hospital, they are totally alone. Not a soul visits them and it is only the nursing staff who will spend any time interacting with them. But hospitals are busy places and the nurses come and go, and the doctors are even less accessible, since they are spread thinly between so many and inundated with paperwork. These poorly paid and seriously overworked hospital staff become the surrogate family for a time. When old people get sick, they rarely recover to their original state of health. When they go home, or “to the Home” things are never the same.
In hospital, they all appear rather alike – frail, depressed, sick and all dressed in patient gowns. But talk to them and you will hear a surprising variety of histories. Among them are former professionals, tradesmen, housewives, labourers, the educated and the uneducated. Why they are so alone is not usually a simple matter, but, despite their differing backgrounds and stories, several themes tend to run in every case. While people describe annoying traits such as rudeness and crabbiness as a reason for the problem, they don’t distinguish these as being a cause or an effect of one’s predicament. The reasons for their loneliness go beyond personality.
Loneliness in old age is associated with depression, dementia, suicide, higher blood pressure, substance abuse (alcoholism, heavy smoking, etc.) and generally poorer outcomes from an episode of illness. It’s no surprise, since people are social beings and most people, without social interaction and the responsibility that comes with it, become slothful and fall into self neglect. People need people. Growing old gracefully has little to do with material wealth, but everything to do with being surrounded by loving people.
So who should look after you when you are old? Who will come and visit, bring you the things you need and help out without taking away your dignity and freedom?
Socialists would argue that governments have the role of ensuring that all the social needs of the elderly are catered for in an institutionalised manner, and that anyone who had made better preparations (by saving, working hard and avoiding debt) would be called upon to help out those who had made none (by being taxed). Capitalism teaches that if people failed to save for their old age, then it’s solely their problem. In both ideological systems, the idea of family rarely comes to the fore. In the U.K., for example, the emphasis in the debate is on Meals On Wheels type services, organised and paid for by local government agencies. These services end up being run in a similar way to every other service – impersonal, cost orientated, and usually of a consistently low standard. The result is crappy food at home, crappy food at the hospital, and unenthusiastic, distant people providing said food (and other services) to unenthusiastic recipients. Nobody wants that.
The fear of being institutionalised is powerful and has been used to great effect, particularly by the Australian Government. Using this fear, successive governments have driven people to increasing superannuation contributions, pursuing the home ownership ‘dream’ and buying up private health insurance. All of these are ultimately geared around the assumption that children won’t look after their parents, the Government will stop the pension and the health system will be unable to look after the elderly. None of these assumptions is fact, but, as prophecies, they are self fulfilling.
As a result of fear and Government policy, people preparing for retirement invested in financial instruments such as shares and superannuation funds. A lot of this money has evaporated, wiping out years of hard work and savings. Before the financial crisis, people would speak of investing in superannuation and shares as a way of making sure they were not dependent on their children in retirement. They assumed that children had no desire to help their parents in their old age, that they would rather lock them up in a nursing home, never to be visited. The older generations view their own children as avaricious, selfish and disloyal, but the finger of blame frequently turns upon itself. Paradoxically, by their greed, people are ensuring their own poverty.
What people should be doing is investing in real things and real people – the ones who matter most. The practice of trusting one’s own welfare to strangers has never proven to be wise. Refugees, for example, are at much higher risk of separation, loss of wealth or even death than people who try to survive a conflict by staying and hiding in their own, familiar environment. Yet this goes against what many may assume to be true, but just as it is better to avoid becoming a refugee, it is similarly foolish to throw one’s self on institutions for support. As much as people may detest the idea of becoming a burden on their children, as a rule they are better off in such a situation than becoming dependent on faceless organisations whose priorities are based in accountancy and legalism, not humanity.
In many ways, the people who do not think so much of the future but put their resources into supporting their children and close relatives are the ones taking the path of wisdom. Several hundred thousand dollars on an investment account is a mere promise of material support when compared with the same, invested in one’s children and their families. By placing their money, emotions and priorities in favour of children, parents are buying into their children’s success, with the reasonable expectation for reciprocal support later on. This is far better than the default scenario of entrusting one’s self in government pensions or private superannuation fund returns.
Of course, there is more this than money. If the approach of trusting one’s children is to succeed, then the children have to be trustworthy, yet this can only come from leadership by example. The onus is on families to build a culture of trust and accountability, of straight talking, straight thinking and keeping promises. Traditional families are well placed to survive economic and social upheaval because they are based on these principles and their reliance on institutions for survival is minimal. By building ties with the children in meaningful ways as they move from being dependent to independent, to being family builders themselves, the older generation ensures that it is looked after and respected. Avoiding loneliness in old age comes from engaging in the lives of the grown children (as equals), in showing respect as well as giving guidance. It’s that simple, yet perhaps the reason this does not occur as often as it should can be attributed to children wanting to rebel against their parents, and the poor way in which this is dealt with by parents themselves. A cycle of animosity develops which perpetuates itself for decades, during which important events in the children’s lives pass by without the parents’ involvement. Eventually the parents become elderly frail, at which point it is too late to make amends.
Loneliness in old age, by rights, should be a rare problem. Becoming old, though itself not a particularly pleasant thought, should come with the great compensation of feeling satisfied what one’s life has achieved. There is no greater source of this than to see one’s own children and share in their success. Family life, therefore, should be the “superannuation fund” of first choice, since its returns are of an enduring and fulfilling quality that institutions cannot match.