In this article on the care of the elderly, SISTER MARY GARSON,of Holy Cross Priory, Heathfield, Sussex, writes: "The key word is love — a supernatural love that is kind and patient and unselfish ... By loving the old and frail, we help them to be united to God." The dandelion is a beautiful flower — starshaped, golden as the sun. It can be used in herbal medicine, the flowers converted into wine. But it suffers from a defect. It is common, and like most common things not valued.
In days gone by, when few lived to be old, the elders were respected for their longevity and valued for their wisdom. But with the advance in hygiene, better food and preventive medicine, and too, with birth control and abortion, the percentage of old people to young increases annually. They have no scarcity value", and in a materialistic age, are regarded as non-productive units. There is pity perhaps but little respect.
How often they are called "mum" or "dad," whether married or single, and given patronising nicknames. They are lumped together as a homogenous mass, not regarded as individual persons with their own interests, talents and backgrounds. How often you hear: "I couldn't work with old people."
The expression "disposal problem" is not unknown, and euthanasia is a topic much to the fore. So the attitude of society to the elderly and its consequences are an added difficulty. Retirement, especially when there has been job concentration to the exclusion of outside interest, may bring problems. There is loss of job status, less money, less companionship.
A not uncommon mistake is to retire to a new district, to a too large house and garden, perhaps to a seaside town, away from friends and relations, forgetting that with increasing age, energy decreases and there is less inclination for the cultivating of new friendships.
There can he a run-down of some of our senses. The elderly may become hard of hearing — eyesight less keen. There may be heart trouble, high blood pressure, arthritis, incontinence or senility. Reactions are slower and there is danger of accidents in our hazardous, fast-moving world. Physical weaknesses bring humiliations, It is not easy for most of us to ask for help. It is not all that difficult for the deaf to imagine people are talking about them . . . and so one could go on.
Perhaps the most painful problem is loneliness accentuated by insecurity. There may be hundreds of people milling around but nobody who seems to care. It is not easy to accept that one's usefulness, as far as the world is concerned, is over. There are fears of being turned out, of being coshed and robbed, of being ill and dying alone — fears that are not unrealistic.
Housing can present problems. Many old people are living in basements or at the top of the house (the cheapest ac commodation) with dangerous oil-stove heating and a lavatory half way down the stairs. Food and heating are expensive. Shopping is tiring, and so there is often malnutrition and hypothermia. It is hard to visit old friends, to get to church and spiritual help may be sadly lacking. It is not surprising that the old suffer from depression. The highest suicide rate in women is between 65 to 74 (19 per cent) and in men 75 plus (39 per cent).
Can't their families help? There are families who have added annexes to their homes or provided bed-sitting rooms for their aged parents. There are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who care for their aged relations to the point of heroism. But daughters may have to go out to work; many homes are small.
The very congestion can lead to friction and unhappiness.
Some old people, although offered homes by their children, prefer independence elsewhere. Many have no near relatives, live far away from relations or need more help than relatives can give.
It is comparatively easy to enumerate problems, difficult to _produce solutions. Courses for retirement are provided by certain firms, by local education authorities and by the WEA and these courses help the elderly to prepare for leisure.
There is a Pre-retirement Association at 35 Queen Anne Street, London, WI, and there are useful books such as "Retire and Start Living" by Eleanor Brockett, "Preparation for Retirement," "Adjusting to Ageing" and "Leisure in Later Years" published by Age Concern, who have Many other useful books. The CTS pamphlets and books of Dr Rudd are also good.
The leisure provided by retirement is utilised by im aginative societies who contact the recently retired for their services e.g. League of Friends, parish councils. SVP etc. The talents of more could be used for their own benefit (for which of us does not want to be useful) and for the benefit of society.
In some towns, part-time gainful employment is organis ed (usually in workshops) by the social services providing a little extra money for amenities and companionship. There are day.
centres, luncheon and old people's clubs where there are interests and activities to
stimulate and satisfy, not least the chance to talk to and ex
change views with contemporaries. To some of these clubs, transport is available and facilities such as hairdressing, chiropody and occupational therapy.
To enable people to remain in their own homes, within their own community, social services and the British Red Cross offer such help as meals on wheels, home-helps, laundry services, sitters-in, safety aids, and ripple beds.
Age Concern will advise on how to obtain talking books for the blind, geriatric clothing, rent rebates, financial help to make the house safe and comfortable.
The district nurse is an in valuable friend and wonderful service is given by schools, youth clubs and organisations such as Task Force and Shalom, whose members will visit, shop, garden and decorate. Sisters from many convents visit the elderly.in the parish, and take an active interest in them.
-Local authorities and voluntary bodies (religious associations and convents come in this category) provide sheltered and residential accommodation. The former is for the active elderly and consists of flats and flatlets where the residents cater for themselves and have maximum
independence, but where a warden keeps a friendly eye on them and provides care in case of temporary illness. Residential accommodation is for the frailer person. Here meals, laundry and necessary help are provided. The residents usually have their own rooms and in good homes may bring their own furniture, have freedom and are treated with respect.
Hospitals and nursing homes provide nursing care. Courses have been started in geriatric nursing for SRNS and generally there is a greater realisation of the need for training. There are now courses for wardens, matrons and assistant matrons.
The British Geriatric Society exists to improve the standards of medical care for elderly persons in hospital and to promote the study or the problems of old age. The Geriatric Care Association is trying to get improved services generally and publishes a useful magazine, Concord.
But there is a great shortage of workers in the field, whether giving voluntary or paid service and the supply of facilities is woefully inadequate. There are just not enough, for instance, of home helps, "meals on wheels," sheltered flats, residential homes, nursing homes. Thousands of old people die before the necessary help or accomm od at i o n becomes available.
What can be done? These are a few suggestions. Perhaps one of them might appeal to you, for these terrible needs are the responsibility of us all.
Parishes could, with the help of the active elderly and d men others, a body ofe dedicatedrl organise day centres and clubs, ;.t would not he impossible to iorm
and women to give service in the homes of the old, a regular hour or two a week, and to visit old people's homes and hospitals where many have no visitors.
Could not families take on "foster parent" responsibility — inviting old people out to tea, perhaps giving them an occasional holiday. This could also relieve relations who are looking after their old mothers and fathers.
There is so much to be done.
People are needed to press politically for better pensions — to protest against the attitudes of our society, the lack of respect for the individual, materialism, euthanasia.
Could not a society be started for the aged in which the united power of their prayer and suffering be utilised, or more publicity be given to existing societies such as the Apostolate of the Sick?
I hesitate to mention this field as I know the priests are so overworked, but there are old people in their own homes, in old people's homes and in hospitals — who were, when fit, daily Mass attenders and who receive Holy Communion infrequently. Could not people be appointed to bring Communion to them?
Housing associations are not difficult to form (the National Coporation of Housing Associations would advise). Financial aid is given to build sheltered schemes. Parishes wishing to build for the active elderly could form their own association or take advantage of existing schemes and work under this umbrella.
Because of the pressing need for the care of the aged, my own organisation was started 20 years ago in Brighton. From the first house (St Mary's, Preston Park) it has spread to various parts of the country and now runs about 20 homes — some sheltered housing, some residential — and also a geriatric nursing unit.
It is both a charity (House of Hospitality, Ltd) and a housing society (St Mary's Dower Trust), the headquarters being at Holy Cross Priory, Heathfield, Sussex. We welcome help from those who can come on a working holiday — the rest or
(work mornings the day free).
We invite -dedicated
Christians (of aay denomination to give six months or more at a nominal salary, insurance paid. also board and lodgings. We need
paid helpers too, particularly nurses with a love of real nursing and women who do not consider domestic work to be beonefacthoutrhseem'
, vocations to the religious life are welcomed by ourselves and all communities engaged in this needful work of the care of the aged. Surely this is a work for the suffering One could write a chapter on the careof the dying. It is a loving task to bring children into the world. It is a marvellous work to help prepare people for death — to give physical and spiritual help to those whom God wants within a short time to be with him for ever, and to comfort and support the relatives and friends.
They key word is love — a supernatural love that is kind and patient and unselfish. We all know when we are truly loved, and it is in this love that we grow in nearness to God. By loving the old and frail, we help them to be united to God.
Next week: "Caring for disturbed people" by Fr Thomas CurtisHayward.