Friday, 15 May 2015
I've started volunteering for Age UK. This is for a mixture of altruistic and self-serving reasons. Starting with the fact that I have an opening since I resigned as a school governor late last year after our beloved primary head teacher - of 14 years - was forced out by the local education department following a critical OFSTED inspection. Incidentally no one saw that coming, least of all the Chair of Governors, who is still there. (That's Wandsworth education department btw. Bless 'em.)
Anyway this means there's a gap where governors' meetings and school visits used to be. I can do some other sort of volunteering, I thought, put something back, not spend all my time just thinking about me and mine. So I thought of old people. Why? Again, more than one reason.
Because we will one day all be old (if we're lucky). Because the thought of being old and alone is a frightening one. Indeed a friend of mine suddenly asked the other day: what is your greatest fear, Elizabeth? My children predeceasing me, I replied, without hesitation, what's yours? Being alone, he said. And it seemed extraordinary to me that he should fear this since he has a busy life with a large family and lots to do. To be old and alone, I concluded, is a universal terror.
Because we're meant to live in groups, aren't we? Villages essentially, with young and old together. Or all under one roof like the lovely Patel family next-door to us, three generations, with old Mrs Patel still going strong in her 90s, cooking chapattis for her family, and sometimes for us too.
We're not meant to hide old people away in homes where they sit in hard-backed chairs in rows in front of the telly. Or worse (arguably) leave them to rot alone in their own homes after their beloved spouse has died. Loneliness kills. Remember that Times campaign at Christmas? Silver Line. Half a million old people will spend Christmas alone, they said...
I remember being taken to visit my great-grandmother as a child, this was in Birmingham, where all my family originally hail from (my parents tend to keep this quiet, I come from York because they moved there in the 60s when my father was offered a job at the brand new university), and she seemed so tiny and vulnerable and alone. I was deeply affected by the experience and wrote a short story about it when I was a teenager. It wasn't much different in essence to that novel du jour Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey, about an old lady living alone, a bit addled in the head, getting confused between past and current events.
And if you have ever been a mum at home with small children, as I have, you will have had a glimpse of what loneliness is, and what it could be in the future. There are moments, sometimes whole days, when the offspring have gone off to school or nursery, when you are completely by yourself, left behind to contemplate the mess: the full dishwasher, the spinning washing machine, the empty silence…
Which brings me to the self-serving part because in volunteering I will get out of the house, meet new people, feel connected to my community. In Denmark, where women over 65 are the happiest people in the world apparently, according to recent research, they do lots of volunteering and it's thought to be one of the things that makes them happy. And lately my work has all been at home, which is isolating. Coffees and lunches with friends are all very well, but too many of them makes me feel like a spoilt housewife.
So now for the altruistic reasons, apart from the desire to help alleviate loneliness. We have a new government, one that's planning 12 billion pounds in welfare cuts which will hit our most needy and vulnerable, and which also plans to increase the age at which you are entitled a state pension. It's already tough out there for elderly people surviving on a meagre pension. We've heard how many food banks there are, Jeremy Paxman helpfully furnished us with that information, in case we didn't know already: more than 400 at the last count, with 163 percent increase in food bank use according to figures from The Trussell Trust. Charities such as Age UK are going to be more important than ever. I can either sit quietly at home for five long years with my fingers crossed in the hope that this lot finally get voted out, or I can get off my bum and try to do something to alleviate the damage in just a teeny tiny way.
So far I've only done a few mornings for the charity, not being a friend to an old person as I had imagined, yet, but working in the office. This is because their faces lit up when they heard I had "office skills". "And you don't know how to do Twitter?" asked the lady who interviewed me.
"Er, just a bit," I replied.
Love E x
Related articles to cut & paste to links.
Why are Danish people so happy?
Food Bank Use Tops Million Mark