Helen Martin: Care for your parents lest history repeats

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THE hope of having someone to look after you in your old age is no reason to have kids; certainly not in modern Western culture, although there are still some places in the world where it's an expected - and accepted - obligation of family life.

Having mum or dad, or even grandparents, living under one roof as part of an extended family unit, so that they can be cared for by loved ones and die in their own bed, is a fine moral ideal.

But when all capable adults are out working to pay for the fundamentals of mortgage, fuel, food and education fees for the next generation, and the elderly become confused, senile and unmanageable, fine moral ideals tend to fall apart at the seams.

Still . . . we do our best - don't we?

A survey of over-55s carried out by a newspaper for the over-50s, "Mature Times", discovered that one in ten said they hadn't seen their mother or father in more than a year, and one in 20 could only manage a phone chat once every two or three months.

Around 40 per cent said they lived too far away to visit regularly. That, plus being "too busy", are the reasons most respondents gave for parental neglect. Only one in three admitted they felt guilty about such lack of contact.

With an ageing population, we've become used to thinking of dementia as the disease that comes with increased national longevity. But it seems we have another sickness in our midst - an out-of-sight-out-of-mind selfishness among the middle-aged.

And according to the survey, it comes back to bite us later because despite failing to visit their elderly parents, almost half of those polled said they were frightened of being forgotten by their own children when they became old and lonely.

And so they should be. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a universal tenet of most religions and philosophies so it's difficult to ignore the fact that if you can't be bothered with your own parents, history is justified in repeating itself.

Not everyone has a great relationship with their parents, of course. Perhaps mothers and fathers who neglected their kids deserve time to ruminate over their failings when they are sitting alone in their eighties.

But for most of us lucky enough to have mothers or fathers who loved us and raised us as best they could, surely abandoning them in their frail, later years would be an unbearable burden on our conscience?

Lest I sound too saintly, my mother at 92 is suffering from galloping dementia and physical deterioration. There's no way I would be equipped either in ability or emotional resilience to care for her at home. And yes, I have my own job, family and commitments. My answer was to place her in a good nursing home nearby and visit her regularly.

I know that's not possible for everyone. But phone calls? Letters? Photographs? Visits when possible? Is that too much to ask?

The staff in my mother's nursing home have endless patience and expertise with even the most troublesome residents. In fact the troublesome ones are often the ones with the most beguiling and interesting characteristics.

At least one or two members of staff usually attend the funerals of residents when the time comes. Too often, apart from the minister and the undertaker, they are the only ones there.

We're used to thinking of the elderly as a problem rather than as individuals. My generation (the over-55s) is already being seen as an expensive time bomb whose care is going to financially cripple generations of the future if we don't die first.

It's all very well expecting governments, councils, social work departments, care workers and nursing homes to manage the "problem" of caring for the elderly. But old people need loving advocates. If not their own children, then who?

Racecourse decision

LAST week's column was about East Lothian councillors refusing, by 12 votes to eight, to re-zone land that would have brought benefits of housing, jobs and revenue to Wallyford.

It would also have meant completion of the greyhound racing stadium there and in exploring possible reasons for the vote, I suggested there might be a conflict of interest for those councillors who were also directors of Musselburgh racecourse - which may not welcome the racing and betting competition.

SNP councillor Kenny McLeod, who IS a racecourse director, pointed out that he was one of the eight who voted in favour of the project.

I'm happy to clarify that. Though if anything it only serves to make the result even more bewildering.