Childless elderly are abandoned to their fate

From Jenni Russell in THE TIMES, 24 October 2019

Early this summer one of my friends caught a train to see her increasingly difficult and distant father. He is a proud and independent man in his eighties, a former successful businessman who has been living alone since his divorce 20 years ago. For months he had been postponing my friend’s visits.

When he opened his front door she saw why. The smell was sickening. Inside was total squalor. There were piles of old and shredded newspapers, and bags of deliquescing vegetables and rotting meat. Rats had been eating the meat and shredding the papers. The fridge was stuffed with decaying food. The carpets in the living room and on the stairs and landings were puddled with urine. There were heaps of dirty clothes and no sheets on the damp, stained bed. When she asked her father why he had no bedding he roared at her in fury and distress.

This man’s deterioration into dementia had happened in months. Because he is intelligent, articulate and often belligerent, his phone calls had masked the change. My aghast friend went into instant organisational overdrive, phoning carers, cleaners and care homes.

Two homes asked her father to leave within days because he was too aggressive. It took weeks of persuasion and research to coax this confused, frightened, resistant man into letting private carers into the house three times a week. Now he is cautiously reassured by their visits, and my relieved friend knows the house is welcoming and he is safe.

My friend’s father was only rescued from this chaos and fog because he has a daughter to agonise over his happiness, organise his money, provide practical help. Our society assumes children do this. One in four 50 to 65-year-olds now spends time caring, and government policy has been to urge families to step up.

A tenth of women born in the 1940s had no children. Now, a fifth of women in their fifties, and about a quarter of those in their forties, have none. Men’s childlessness is harder to measure but is thought to be slightly higher. Each year almost a quarter of a million of those adults will need more than 20 hours’ care a week. Yet local authority budgets have been shredded and these people cannot rely on family instead.

This year a consultant who has been working in this area for years launched an organisation advising on how to age well without children, or AWWOC. Kirsty Woodard, who is single and in her fifties, says that as people’s brains and bodies age it is the multiple small things they need help with, not just the last stages of infirmity.

“It’s shopping, changing lightbulbs, phoning the bank, navigating websites. In my local authority every inquiry goes through a website, and what do you do when you can’t make sense of it? It’s very hard to reach a human being. There’s literally nowhere you can go for this sort of help. Voluntary groups that used to do it have been killed off by austerity, and social services certainly can’t.”

AWWOC encouraged affected adults to set up local groups. Sue Lister, a 74-year-old actress and director from York, organises a monthly meeting of a dozen people and sends the notes from it to a couple of hundred people around the country who feel alone with their problems.

Sue says there are daily anxieties about having nobody younger and more capable to turn to for help or reassurance but people’s greatest fear is of having nobody to look out for them when they can no longer look out for themselves.

Many have cared for their own parents and realise how much patience and advocacy it requires. They know that one in six over-80s will get dementia, and that half of over-65s are mildly to severely frail. They fear for their futures.

Finding someone to trust who can be burdened with that responsibility is extremely hard. One woman has appointed her cleaner to take on power of attorney. Others can think of nobody.

Sue is so afraid of losing her mind and being kept in the nearest, cheapest home, where nobody cares whether she lives or dies, that she’s campaigning to choose her own time of death. “I want out,” she says.

Kirsty Woodard says that it’s unrealistic to assume that most individuals know a non-relation who will take on the emotional and practical weight of such a potentially huge task.

She suggests we need organisations such as Age UK to oversee the local appointments of three or four individuals who will get to know a childless adult, understand their wishes, and between them take on the oversight of one person’s care, paid from their estate.

Creative solutions for ageing adults are possible, says Kirsty, if only the country starts looking for them. That doesn’t seem to be happening. The age lobbies rarely mention the issue, and AWWOC has lost its national funding. But with numbers growing and millions of childless adults heading into old age without the support everyone else can count on, this problem is only going to worsen.

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