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Beloved Old Age and What to Do About it: Margery Allingham's the Relay Paperback – 30 Jun 2016
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Uniquely in my experience, she writes of looking after one's own family oldies as a privilege, a vital part of the family, not just a duty or a burden, though she acknowledges the enormous stresses involved. So Margery and her sister set up a home for their mother, and two aunts, in a cottage over the road. Margery calls this a 'dower house' system which nowadays makes it all sound very posh and upper class, but she was referring to an old tradition whereby the older generation live out their days in a nearby house, with support from family. What we'd now perhaps call a 'granny annex' which is patronising rather than posh, not much of an improvement vocab-wise. With great honesty, she describes how to set up such a system - it's vital to have someone professional looking after them, a housekeeper/home help, to take some of the personal stress from family. I was much struck with the points she made, back then when almost everyone had servants who wasn't one, that this person's salary should be the largest part of the expenditure by far, and they should have adequate time off covered by family members. So many people now who work caring for elderly people are on minimum wage. We have no respect for carers either family struggling alone or paid carers.
Julia Jones has added her own experiences and her personal responses to her own 'relay race' with her mother in journal-like entries which comment on Margery's writing too. Many many of us have had to cope with forms of dementia and other disabilities in our older loved ones. Julia writes with searing honesty of when she struggles to cope, and also of the joys and humour and special moments of intimacy they share. Julia Jones co-runs 'John's Campaign' with Nicci Gerrard, to fight for the rights of those with dementia to have family/carers with them in hospital. We still have a long way to run in this race, and this book is fascinating, moving, beautifully written by both Margery and Julia, and really thought-provoking.
Ms Jones conveys the crises of old age with the striking image of ‘a shipwreck in slow motion’ and few of us need to be reminded of how challenging it must be to witness such a process at first hand. Indeed, Allingham warned that ‘the problem of old people was one which must be approached with more than haphazard goodwill’.
The subject is distressing and, even though there are plenty of tender, touching moments and even injections of humour by both writers, in essence this is an acceptance of some painful and inescapable truths, an analysis of the interactions between those suffering from the condition and their carers, and an attempt to propose approaches which see the whole process in a broader context. More than that, the perspectives of the two writers, separated by some fifty years, chart society’s changing attitudes to old age (as well as some which persist), and illustrate very starkly how much further we need to go not only in the provision of care but also in our understanding of the dynamics of the relationships involved.
Although she does refer to the specifics of her own situation as part of a caring solution, there is a deliberate detachment in Allingham’s account. She seeks to discard stereotypes and proposes structured relationships and solutions based on two-way processes. In order to help her analysis, she uses generalising terms – ‘old people’, ‘Care’ (her word for carer). What makes the book work so well, however, is the way the clear-minded analysis is then peopled and personalised by Ms Jones’s reflections on it and her day to day experiences with her mother. Both writers are telling painful truths and yet they manage to penetrate beyond the stereotypical image of a sad bewildered sufferer and a helpless, frustrated ‘Care’. In Ms Jones’s exchanges with her mother she feels that she’s ‘transferring scraps of her identity across to me’. Allingham warns that ‘Old people sometimes take lives without noticing it. It is up to everybody to protect his own.’ The concept of what ‘home’ means to sufferers is examined. What is it? The Almighty? The place where they grew up? Some other part of their life? Death? Or do they just want to get back to being who they used to be? When brains work less efficiently, when memories vanish or merge, normal reality offers no answers or remedies.
The book will touch you but it will also set you thinking, make you question some of the assumptions you make about age, personality, inter-generational communication. The writing is beautiful, often very simple, and the two voices draw you into a complex counterpoint, present you with a universal situation which is personalised by little memories, touches, moments of lucidity and, above all, the cruel paradox of how love can generate so much pain.
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