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Age Concerned / 6 May 2014

After watching Panorama's harrowing but must see programme about the abuse of elderly patients in a £700 a week 'Care Home' on the BBC last week, I was reminded of my maternal grandmother Lucy's death. 

My grandmother at age 86 fell out of bed, she had not been ill, in fact she had never been in hospital (apart from working as a cleaner in a strict regime in the town hospital).  A week later she was dead. 

I was only 12 and felt traumatised. I would not believe it. Maybe it was youth or maybe it was a deep knowing that something was deeply wrong. My mother and I visited her and she wept 'I've never been like this Jenny'. She kept saying 'what's that black dog doing there?' and 'who's that man?' - there was no man.  What an undignified end to a woman for whom dignity and being a good, upright person was everything.

I now realise she had been given hallucinatory drugs. A nurse who practiced in those times confessed that old people would be 'finished off with a cocktail of drugs'. Sounds unbelievable? It wouldn't surprise me.

Being old in this country is not seen as a positive thing as it seems to have been for mother's and grandmothers generation respected older people (as probably the unfortunate patients in the care homes did). Everything seems geared around youth. When you disclose your age do people try to categorise you? 

Age is a number and as long as we take care of ourselves, it should not impede us. I am certainly more interested in 90 year old Dorothy up the road than the trendy yuppies moving in. A woman who has seen drastic changes, lived through World War II, worked in a munitions factory, wears two hearing aids, broke her hip but defies her kids warnings about going out - has a little walk to the shop and sweeps her pavement is far more interesting to me than whoever or whatever's 'trending'.

As Jarvis Cocker sang 'Help the Aged', not just because we will all be old one day but because they should be respected and listened to. I still feel guilt about my grandmother's death but it was out of my hands, the establishment seemed to order it. And the little Close where she and other single elderly people lived and where everyone looked out for each other e.g. my gran would send me with home made food and lemonade to the man next door or to Annie the 'drunken one' who sometimes could be found laid out on the grass after a few too many stouts at the Rose and Crown an gran felt sorry for her but as was the case back then, no one really knew each other's pasts as people didn't share life stories back then. I feel lucky to be in an age where at least we can exorcise our ghosts. 

My paternal grandmother died long before I was born but it would be nice to have a mirror like Erised in Harry Potter where we could meet our loved ones. She was a psychiatric nurse in Scotland and suffered severely as a result of her sensitivity and ended up in Yorkshire nursing my great grandfather who was a Scottish farmer. She met my mentally unstable grandfather there which led to a terrible life and she died at the young age of 54. So there was a case of paying respect but not being respected back as she fell pregnant, was unmarried and had to clean the stone floors of the farm kitchen for sour milk. 

Will we ever get to a point where we are all equal?  No one disrespects anyone else. It could be just human nature that lies at the heart of it and the way it takes it course can never be controlled.


I am sorry I wasn't there when you fell out of bed
I am sorry you were alone and frightened
I am sorry you called for me when the home-help found you
I am sorry I never told you how grateful I was
For the warm coal fire
For the safety
For the home cooking
For the sanctuary
For being upright
For not giving in
For your humility
For your history

I wish I'd been older
I wish I'd been wise
But my youth was calling
I had to cut ties
But it was never no better
Than being with you
The bullies already had me
You didn't realise
You thought I was selfish
And ungrateful and mad
But underneath
You knew I was sad
I wish for your stories
Of blackleading the stove
Of being a mother to your brothers
When yours had died
The losses you felt
When they were killed in the war

(The ones who survived seemed spoilt
No support)
When your sister died aged thirteen
Like lots of children then
She clutched the orange she never ate
You kept it forever - a brown toy in the drawer
Empty but for pips that I shook like a maracas
Was put in my mother's hand when she died
History gone
Respectfulness rid
You could have lived longer
To this end I am sure
But killing you off seemed to be the law
My testament Lucy, to you, my gran
Is that your dignity and good
Lives on in my in my poem when I am gone.