The human spirit needs more than ordinary basics

Society shuns the idea and reality of ageing. Have we forgotten that these are the generations that rebuilt the country after the war?

The care of our elders is uncomfortably straddled between struggling families and a merciless government that forgets that systems are meant to serve rather than feed off life. We should be happy that our efforts to increase the human lifespan have paid off, and give thanks that we have more time to be alive together. But instead we often talk about an ageing population in terms of a mechanical instrument losing its moving parts: a screeching crisis that threatens to choke the entire machine. As a community carer, I have gained some insights into how we could change this mindset into a powerful movement that might enrich life for all of us.

The trouble is, a strange attitude not only infects government priorities but also filters through the entire concept of community. It is the disinclination, perhaps fear, to confront anything that touches on death or decrepitude; and a revulsion when it comes to basic bodily functions.

Like Adam and Eve when they took a bite of the apple, and became suddenly demure, we blush and giggle like children at nakedness, and treat bathroom matters as strange, alien acts to grimace about, instead of as the simple, earthly reality everybody deals with every day.

Old age brings about legions of peculiarities in matters considered to be private. And, because they are not openly talked about, its struggles take place in a lonely place of needs that must be isolated from modern life. While this lack of care makes life more difficult and distressing than it should be for older people, our failure to consider the impact of needs most associated with ageing are having a catastrophic effect.

While the great “real” or “disposable” nappy debate plays out, and new parents attend support groups and engage in valiant acts to responsibly manage the months their children will need a nappy, nobody mentions that granny is going through mountains of the adult variety – not to mention fatberg-inducing cleaning wipes – and has been for decades. The sheer quantity of incontinence pads and waste products for the aged destined for landfill day after day does not bear thinking about. To add insult to injury, they are woefully inadequate in practical terms. Is there no way of creating better alternatives that can go into a compost bin?

Then there is washing. For an elderly person, keeping clean can be a tiring and troublesome to-do, especially when they can no longer climb into a bath or manage a shower. We carers take pride in keeping our charges thoroughly fresh and smelling of roses, but there is nothing like a good soak for skin health, and to relieve aches and pains. Specialist facilities that might be found in care homes can rarely be afforded or accommodated in private houses. Could somebody design a mobile washing unit that could do visits to houses once a week or a fortnight? It would ease much discomfort, and potentially save lives.

Fashion designers, we need new garments that are comfortable yet dignified for older people. Tracksuits have become standard issue, thanks to elasticated waistbands and relative comfort, but are a confidence dent to people who have always taken pride in dressing well. We need clothes that are easy to put on and take off, that pull up and down but are designed to make the wearer feel valued and well turned out.

As for mobility, there are great aids out there – from frames and turntables (not the disco kind) to hoists and a magical mini-slide called a banana board that does the world of good in transferring a person from one seat to another. What is not so considered is the design of aids to enable reading, crafts, music – the activities a person would engage in to keep sane but which can be off limits owing to reduced sight, hearing or dexterity. Where other needs might be seen as more practical, a bright spirit forced to live without creative endeavours can become a deeply starved – imprisoned – soul.

For food, there are good systems to provide regular ready-meals tailored to elderly people’s needs, but the ethics of meat or dairy and crop treatment are rarely discussed, and microwaves are often the only cooking facility. I’ve noticed that as a culture we seem to shy away from discussing eating choices with the aged – as if protecting them from the truth of mass cruelty in factory farming, which now risks ushering in a post-antibiotic era. Nutrition has to be the priority, but could there not be more education when it comes to the impact of eating? And could ethical and organic options not be made more widely available?

Pensioners comprise nearly a fifth of the UK population, and are set to make up a quarter within the next 20 years. This is no delicate or weak minority – it is the slice that could make or break the future. While younger generations might be dedicating time to planet-saving innovations – such as lights turned on by gravity, and sea-cleaning machines – their activities will be hollow unless they overcome their scruples to involve, rather than exclude, the concept and reality of ageing.

On the other hand, once we work out how better to do the things that are not being done well for our elders, we will be supporting better the families caring for them, and perhaps inspire a myopic government to finally see opportunity rather than risk. Within all this, surely older people have a great deal to teach us? Have we forgotten that these are the generations that rebuilt the country after the war, that created the NHS and fought so fiercely to save the good in the world? Don’t we owe them at the very least cleanliness, dignity, the kind of food we all enjoy, and a few of the things that sustain the soul?