Erikka Askeland: Ageing with dignity and grace is costly
AS YOU are reading this, it is likely I will be journeying south to see Grace’s ashes put in her grave. Don’t worry if this sounds a little somber. I expect it to be a bit of a happy occasion too.
There will be a simple service in a quiet country church yard under the dappled shade of an old tree. And she will at last be put to rest next to the husband she adored and whom she longed to see in the years they were parted.
For me, being a part of her life during her last days was a great privilege but also a constant worry. She was fortunate to have lived into her 90s. A woman after my own heart, she remained feisty of mind and independent. She was also lucky to be surrounded and supported by loyal friends she had known for decades, who helped her stay where she chose, in her own home right up until her last few weeks.
But while she retained her wits and sense of humour, it wasn’t easy. Frailty and age meant that she lived with a lot of pain. Her collection of prescription drugs was a wonder to behold, stocked with enough painkillers to pacify even a rather angry elephant.
Increasingly, she was finding it more difficult to do the simplest of tasks. She began to rely on carers who would help her dress and bathe in the morning and then to put her to bed again at night. One evening, struggling with her walker and her arthritis, she looked me in the eye and observed: “This is no way to live”.
Actually, she was wrong. It was a way to live, albeit one that was fraught with terrible challenges. It also raised the difficult question of whether we as a society have the right balance between prolonging life and extending suffering.
Yet the alternative to doing anything but making life at its end as easy as possible is unthinkable. Even if it means having to sacrifice those things younger, healthier people take for granted, like dignity and freedom.
But the way we think of ageing and how to make it as comfortable and happy as possible is now being put under serious question. Recently, the government mooted plans to promote loans to pay for care, repayable from the users’ estate after death. Dubbed “pay as you go”, this proposal, along with others, sparked shock and anger in response. And while argument is healthy, we are in danger of getting caught out by a demographic time bomb if we carry on the debate over how to manage support for the elderly too long.
The problem is all about the money. The care system we have now can just about handle the needs of people like Grace, or my grandmother, who also lived well into her 90s. But as that vast and currently healthy group of people born after the second world war starts needing carers and homes that suit their abilities, the already creaking system is set to break.
Nor is this only because the country is broke. It is, but the question of how to fund the growing army of frail elderly people was an issue even when we were minting it in that freewheeling, debt-fuelled boom time. Was it only five years ago?
What is worse is that the same folk who have been calculating that the UK will have to dig up tens of billions from behind the sofa over the next 50 years are beginning to think we might never find it.
Douglas McWilliams, a critical friend of Scotland who runs an influential economic think tank, will be doing a series of lectures at Gresham College in London later this year delivering what he says is a “wake up call” for Europeans.
His argument will be that the world is shifting on its axis, as two thirds of the world’s population moves from near starvation to moderate prosperity. He argues it will have a bigger impact on us, in the West, than that of the industrial revolution.
Essentially, he raises questions about basic things – like how much food will cost when billions more people can afford to buy it. Or energy, or water for that matter.
He mused that: “We in the west will probably not have as cushy a life as we have had up until now.
“As someone who was brought up in the Third World I’ve always been surprised by the extent to which Westerners took high living standards for granted.”
I suppose I always have too.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
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