AS A rule I don’t pay much heed to surveys. Some are unbelievable: if one in seven people really believe the end of the world is nigh, why haven’t they quit their jobs? Some are banal: who cares if one in three women never leaves home without make-up? And a few – such as the ones speculating on the guilt or innocence of Florida Neighbourhood Watch killer George Zimmerman – are downright dangerous.
But there was a YouGov poll last week that made me sit up and take notice. Commissioned by carers’ website engagewithyou.com, it said wealthy adults were more likely to neglect their elderly parents than their poorer counterparts.
Perhaps it was because, at the precise time I was reading it, my children were being cared for by their long-suffering grandparents, both of whom are heading towards their eighties; perhaps it was because I knew when I got home, said grandparents would not only have cooked the tea, but sorted out the washing and swept the garden path as well. And it left me with a lingering sense of guilt that even buying a conscience-salving bunch of flowers from the local supermarket wouldn’t shift. OK, so I’m nowhere near the survey’s top-income bracket (nor entirely devoid of filial devotion) but even so, when was the last time I did my in-laws’ shopping, painted their house or performed any of the manifold tasks the survey insists those who earn less than £20,000 carry out as a matter of course?
And do I – like my less-affluent, but infinitely more generous fellow citizens –help support them financially? Far from it. Indeed, I spend most of my time unsuccessfully fending off gifts, such as each child’s first secondary school blazer.
The same can be said of my own mother. If she isn’t looking after the kids to allow me to work, she is showering them with books or holiday money. And what does she get in return? A weekly phone call, which consists more of me offloading my latest problems than checking up on her wellbeing.
Confronted with my own inadequacy, I did what any self-respecting responsibility-shirker would do. Like WC Fields when caught reading a Bible, I started looking for loopholes. And there were a few. While calculating the percentage of people who support their parents financially (just 6 per cent of those on over £100,000 compared with 30 per cent of those on under £20,000) the survey took no account of the state of the parents’ own bank balances. Although by no means a hard and fast rule, it seems reasonable to suspect, that – since wealth breeds wealth – those in the upper income brackets are more likely to have parents who are economically independent.
Then there is the fact that many people in their seventies and early eighties, particularly those who are financially stable, don’t present as frail and needy; they go dancing, take computer classes and travel abroad. They don’t match our mental image of an old person so we forget they may struggle to cut the grass or wash their windows.
Excuses, excuses. The fact is, according to this survey, when it comes to caring for elderly parents, the lower people’s salary, the more effort they make.
For example, a quarter of those earning £100,000 or more saw their parents less than once a month. And those who earned the least were five times more likely to provide regular, routine support than those who earned the most. Why might this be? Well, the first thing to point out is that the higher the earner, the more likely they are to have moved away from home. It’s not so easy to just pop in to check up on your mum every couple of days if she lives in Oban and you are working in the city.
Then, of course, people who are cash-rich are often time-poor. All those hours working overtime makes it difficult enough to keep up with your own housework, never mind other people’s. How likely are you to do your parents’ garden, when your lawn looks like the set for Apocalypse Now and your leylandii trees wave their overgrown branches at you in an accusatory fashion every Sunday morning?
Still, I can’t see it being any easier for single parents who work a night-shift. Indeed, the more lowly paid the job, the less secure it’s likely to be, so those with caring duties are less likely to ask for time off and more likely to find themselves unemployed if they have to cut corners professionally.
Perhaps the brutal truth is the middle-classes tend to be narcissistic and consumed with the idea of self-advancement. It isn’t just their work that’s so much more important than everyone else’s, it’s everything from their children’s drama classes to their need for “me time”.
Life is about moving onwards and upwards, and niceties, such as making sure you take time out to visit elderly parents, fall by the wayside. It’s ungrateful, but it’s also short-sighted. As our ageing population places an ever greater strain on health and social services, we will all need to start pulling our weight; and there is so much to be gained from spending time with older people.
In any case, from a self-absorbed, middle-class perspective, what goes around comes around.
If we don’t lead by example; if we don’t teach our children that caring for the older generation is both right and rewarding, then how can we expect them to bother their bahookies about us when the time comes? «