Wednesday, 16 March 2016


“Are you taking pills for that?” I shout to the elderly woman on the end of the line. “Yes!” she shouts back, because they all shout. “Warfarin!” and they’re nearly all on Warfarin. Many of them are diabetic too.

She tells me about her palpitations and all the other things that are wrong with her. She can’t see well, her hearing is shot, her legs don’t work, she keeps having to have a quick lie down. ‘Off her legs’ is the expression my mother uses for what suddenly happens to people in advanced old age. 

Getting on is no joke, this elderly lady informs me, which is not what I want to hear with a birthday of my own in the offing, even though I know the alternative to getting old is definitely worse. I'd rather hear jokes, but jokes are thin on the ground with this malarkey, so it’s important to keep things light, and loud. 

“Do you have enough food in?” I holler, to the next one down the list, a lovely old gent.

“What’s that, love?” he says.

“Food, I said! Are you getting enough?!”

“Oh! Yes, thank you for asking.”

"Good. Right. Well, we're here if you need us."


"If you need us!" 

“You’re made for this job,” said the woman I work with at the charity after the first time I did it, moments after I'd burst forth from the tiny windowless room at the back of the office there, where they keep me hidden away so I don’t disturb anyone with my incessant bellowing. That first session had been long, a particularly exhausting one, but incredibly rewarding; I couldn't wipe the grin off my face.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I loved that. Soooo much better than filing and data entry,” which is what I did before, and which I was totally crap at because I didn't concentrate properly and kept drifting off and making mistakes. 

“I’ve finally found my thing, something I’m good at… chatting!”

It can be a bit of a downer, but every now and again there’s a surprisingly up-beat soul to talk to. Case in point, last week, when I commiserated with an old lady about her recently deceased husband. “Don’t worry, dear,” she giggled. “I didn't like him. He was handy with his fists, knocked my block off on more than one occasion. I took him to court and everything and the judge actually turned round and agreed with me. Me! Took my side in the matter.” Okay. Goodness. Didn't see that coming.

It goes without saying that all these old people are house-bound, which is why I’m ringing them in the first place, and a lot of them are bed-ridden too. Each week I’m left haunted by their stories. By the time I get off the phone after a couple of hours every Monday morning, there are all these little snippets of information tumbling round my head like a jumbled wash load: whites, colours, wool, synthetics, all in there together. And speaking of dirty laundry, one old lady cried down the phone to me this week because her washing machine had flooded her kitchen floor and she couldn't get in touch with the repair service.

We're failing these elderly people, hundreds of thousands of them up and down the country in boroughs just like mine, leaving them to fend for themselves. "I'm lively, just lonely," one man told me this week, and it was so apt, I actually wrote that down. There’s got to be a better way.

 “Can’t you come round?” the broken washing machine lady pleaded. “You sound like such a lovely person. Please come.”

But there was nothing I could do but listen. “This is the telephone befriending service,” I explained, “home visits are a whole other thing.”

Last week left me feeling particularly low, listening to tale after tale of sickness and befuddlement. One lady said she’s not left her flat in six months. Six months! She was on the top floor of a block and couldn’t get down the stairs. “I’m just marking time,” she told me. “I look forward to bed from the minute I get up. I turn in as early as possible, taking two hot water bottles with me to keep warm.” It was heartbreaking.

The contrast between most of these elderly people I speak to for the charity and my own parents, who are the same age as a lot of them, couldn’t be more pronounced. My mum and dad are incredible, fully active, on committees, still teaching, writing, organising events. My mother does Zumba classes. My father grows veg and shimmies up trees at weekends in the community orchard he helps to manage. Despite knocking on in years he’s as fit as a fiddle, still with a zest for life; “nifty” as my little niece quaintly described him the other week.

A lot of it is attitude, I think, as I sit listening to tale after tale, as well as what’s in the genes. Sure, there’s the luck of the draw, genetics-wise, but there’s also a refusal to give up and lie down. My parents grab life by the scruff of the neck, and they’re optimists. Well, my mother’s an optimist, my dad just goes with the flow and does what she says, which is the perfect model for a successful pairing, as I keep telling my husband.

And then the other day, just when I was feeling quite down about the whole thing, a cheery voice suddenly answered my last call of the morning.

“How are you today? “ I asked.

“I’m okay,” said the cheery voice.

“And what are you doing right now?” I enquired.

“Reading the paper,” she said. “I’m very interested in current affairs. I like to stay up with what’s going on.”

“Good for you!” I exclaimed, because this was an extremely unusual turn for one of these conversations to take.

“Yes, as a matter of fact I think we should stay in the EU,” she said, all of a sudden, a propos of nothing.

Jesus, it's the fucking EU again, I thought.

“Okay. Right. Interesting. So what’s your take on that?” I asked politely.

“I think we should remain in it,” she said.

“Do you?” I replied, because this was also not what I was expecting to hear, somehow.

“Yes,” she told me. “I know all the young people these days are for out, but I’m all for in.”

“Sounds good,” I responded. “Do you mind telling me how old you are?” 

I don’t usually ask this because it sounds cheeky, but there was something about the timbre of her voice that interested me.

“Not at all," she said, "I’m 99.” 

“99!” I said. “Wow, that’s so cool.”

“Yes,” she said, “that’s what I am.”

Which made me smile.

Love E x


P.S. She also told me she was extremely worried about the prospect of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States, which I thought was very selfless of her.

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