Virginia Barton

A society that has forgotten caring


Catholic Herald, 23 September 1988


What about tucking Gran up in the attic? Or Great Uncle Fred in the spare room? One solution to the problem of what to do with Gran (or GUF) in her old age.

There must be nearly as many empty attics as there are old people in homes. It seems that about a million and a quarter women look after dependent relatives. Of this huge number, some two thirds develop physical or mental illness.

It doesn’t surprise me; the care of the aged, which most often falls on women in their middle age when their children have flown the nest, is demanding and exhausting. One needs the patience of a saint and the strength of an ox, quite apart from endless charity and a robust sense of humour.


img_homeI like to think I failed on the “ox” count only, when my aged ancestor was trundled into a Home while I was whirled into casualty. After the lapse of a year I can look at the unhappy episode with a resigned acceptance of the facts, rather than the ashamed guilt I felt at the time.

Used to performing the tasks and duties I set myself, (admittedly nothing very strenuous) it was humiliating to have to admit that I had bitten off more than I could chew. Not only my own health suffered from my mistaken assumption that looking after the ancestor at home would be a doddle. The entire family was discombobulated.

Is modern life too hectic and cramped to accommodate Gran in her nook by the fireplace? How did our forebears manage, without all the gadgets we take for granted, and which make life so “easy”? Most people didn’t live so long (or expect to), and the only alternative was the workhouse. The attitude of mind was also different, and the spread of generations under one roof was a matter of course.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved having the ancestor about the place, but I simply couldn’t cope with the broken nights, the anxiety and sheer physical workload. It is all very well if Gran is spry and nimble on her pins. It’s a whole new ball-game if she is bed-ridden and immobile. Then the carer must rely on extra help if it is available.


My experience was that it isn’t, unless you can pay for it. The cost of 24 hours’ qualified nursing, in the middle of a city, was about the same as the weeks’ pension and attendance allowance put together.

Yet the one and a quarter million carers save the country billions of pounds every year. It is six times cheaper looking after a relative at home than caring for them in an institution. So you would think that loads of money would be directed into supporting this vast and neglected army.

Not so. “Community care” is grossly underfunded; without it well-intentioned attempts like my own inevitably collapse in tears. Perhaps a carers’ allowance, with which to purchase extra hands, would solve the problem of diminishing numbers of home helps, bath attendants and district nurses. In our town there is plenty of private help to be had if you can pay for it.


With such a recent and salutory example, you might think that – prudently – I have made careful arrangements for my own rapidly approaching old age. I haven’t, and neither have any of my friends.

Possibly the nuclear ice-age will prevent our collecting our pensions. I have written a rather complicated will and an equally detailed instruction regarding my funeral. But as to the run-up to what, 1 pray, may be a dignified exit, there is a sorry lack of preparedness.

Shall I convert the attic? If so, who will care downstairs?



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