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WOMAN'S HOUR
TX: 17.01.08
Who Carries The Can For Parental Care?


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TX: 17.01.08 - Siblings and Care

PRESENTER: JENNI MURRAY


MURRAY
Now last summer when my was father was dying in a hospice in Barnsley I was talking to one of the nurses about how hard it was to face these things as an only child with no brothers or sisters to share it with. Think yourself lucky, she said, it'll have saved you an awful lot of aggro. Well Sue has two older brothers, she's in early 30s, and as she explained to Caroline Kenyon she took on the care of her mother when her father died.

SUE
Back in 1996 dad died and I realised that me mum needed me. I was living with her anyway so I just thought I'd take on the job.

KENYON
Did you have to give anything up to look after your mum?

SUE
Yes there was a lot of freedom, a good wage packet if I found a job and making new friends, socialising, finding boyfriends.

KENYON
Were you aware of all that at the time?

SUE
No I wasn't. I do feel it sometimes but I'm used to it now. After 11 years of looking after me mum I do get respite but it took a long time for me to actually find out I can't get respite from social services.

KENYON
You've got two brothers, when you started caring for your mum did they offer to look after her, was there any discussion?

SUE
Me youngest brother he's been absolutely fantastic, despite him actually being unable to look after himself because he's got a young family and holding down a full-time job, so he couldn't really handle what I've got going through. So I decided well that's the way it is.

KENYON
Do you think the fact that you're a woman had any part to play in the decision?

SUE
Most probably, unfortunately. It still doesn't make things right being a woman, I should still have my freedom, I should have what I'm entitled to and I don't get it.

KENYON
Some would say you made the decision knowing what the decision meant and if you don't like the decision now you could do something about it, you could move your mum somewhere else for someone else to look after her.

SUE
Yeah but that means money and homes do cost which I can't afford.

KENYON
What would you say if your brother offered to have your mum?

SUE
I'd say yes on a trial basis but she's got to be very happy - no animals jumping up on her or grand kids pestering her. I know I can't give her the best care anyone can give her but I do hesitate in letting everybody else take control. I'm too proud to ask for help in the first place. And I just don't want to give her up because I know that she's happy with me.

MURRAY
Sue was talking to Caroline Kenyon. So how do the children in a family sort out who's going to be responsible for making sure their elderly and infirm parents are well looked after? Livinia Cohn-Sherbok is one of the authors of What You Do When Your Parents Live Forever; Katharine Whitehorn is the agony aunt at Saga magazine. Katharine, how would you advise Sue if she asked you for advice as to what she should do?

WHITEHORN
Well I'm afraid I would be inclined to be a bit more brutal about it than somebody like the saint-like person you've just been listening to was because maybe you take it on for a little while but it's quite clear that it can change and indeed ruin the life of whoever gets stuck with it if they're the only person doing it. And I think very often brothers don't pull their weight and I know we had trouble in my own family because my sister-in-law didn't think we were pulling our weight but so often of course when you say my brother isn't pulling his weight when you actually get that family to take a share it's not the brother it's the brother's wife who takes it over.

MURRAY
But Lavinia how does a child become a martyr to a parent's needs?

COHN-SHERBOK
Well I think it very much depends on the original family dynamic. The pattern, almost invariably, is that it's daughters do it rather than sons and I'm afraid all too often it is sadly the daughter who is in economically the weakest position who is left with it and invariably there is a great deal of resentment as a result.

MURRAY
How much tension is caused within a family, what have you come across?

COHN-SHERBOK
Oh I think enormous tension. In the old days when people lived in a more tribal set up then the whole thing can be shared but as we heard from Sue the burden falls almost entirely on her. I mean I'm sure her brother is marvellous but the fact is living with an old person day in, day out, 24 hours a day seven days a week in one sense it's a privilege of course but in another it is very, very hard indeed.

MURRAY
Katharine, how much does it surprise you that it is still often the daughter who takes on the responsibility after all these years of the women's movement and feminism and arguing equal rights and women getting jobs, still it seems to be the daughter who takes it?

WHITEHORN
Jenni, you know it very well, it's not surprising in the least because the idea that it's the woman who does the caring and is at home dies hard and it's difficult enough to get men to do their share when it's small lovable children who are going to get easier and easier over the time - over time. It's very difficult with someone who's going to get worse. And I do think that the more that can be done by professional people, either coming in to take on half a day or respite care or even the dreaded word going into a home the better because when it's a professional they do it for their stint - eight hours or whatever it is - and then they go back into their own real life but if it's a family member it's very often 24 hours a day and they don't have a proper life of their own.

MURRAY
We've had an e-mail from a guy called Kenneth Hales who says: What is this about sacrificing your life to be a carer? Don't families have a duty to care for their relatives? Mothers and fathers expect to sacrifice their social lives to bring up their children, don't we have a responsibility to look after our parents as they looked after us? Do we Katharine?

WHITEHORN
Well I don't think so, not in the real world. I think the idea that it's the women of the family look after the old people worked when that was what women did and there were always lots of women and they were at home. But they now, apart from having jobs and so forth, I think one has to take into account the fact that old people live so much longer. They used - if you took it on once you took it on for a few years, if you take it on now you might be taking it on for 20 years and it's all very well for somebody who's not doing it to talk about the duty but I wonder how good an idea he has of just how ghastly it can be.

MURRAY
You say Lavinia in your book that one of your commandments is be guided by your sense of duty, what did you mean by that?

COHN-SHERBOK
Well what I meant by it is simply that it's not something one necessarily feels like doing but it is something that sometimes one feels one must do. But having said this I do agree with Katharine, I do think the answer is to employ as much professional help as possible but as we heard from Sue earlier it is incredibly expensive and I'm afraid it is not a priority as far as the government is concerned, the government's care allowance is absolutely derisory frankly, given the cost of keeping an old person in a home. So it is a very major problem and it's all very well to say you should have an enormous sense of duty but invariably it's only one member of the family who is expected to have a sense of duty not all of them.

MURRAY
Katharine, what do you say to older people who write to you at Saga complaining that their children are not looking after them?

WHITEHORN
Well Saga of course is not everybody, you don't get that magazine initially unless you bought their insurance or go on a cruise or something, so they're probably not as hard up generally as the population as a whole. I think that people do write and say they're being neglected, especially by their daughters-in-law and there are certainly are daughters-in-law from hell who don't pay enough attention to the older generation. But they also have a lot of very sensible solutions like having an old person living next door to them or in a granny flat but not necessarily living with them. And of course I agree that good homes tend to be terribly expensive but they're not all terribly expensive. I've got a 94-year-old aunt who is in a brilliant - Abbeyfield - which is - you get your freedom to the extent that you have your own key and your own room and so on but they give you your meals and then when you get more frail you move over to what you might call a nursing home. But I would like to see far more of modest and much better subsidised places where people aren't either stuck away in a bedroom forever nor left completely on their own.

MURRAY
What do you expect of your sons Katharine?

WHITEHORN
I expect them to see that I'm decently looked after wherever I wound up but I can think of nothing worse - and I'm quite sure she can't - of having my daughter-in-law, who is marvellous, actually bathing me or anything like that and I think it's a mistake to assume that all people actually want to be dealt with by their own children. Somebody wrote in about the horror of having to wipe your own mother's bottom, if it's done by a nurse whose job it is, who's trained to do it, doesn't feel emotionally bad about it one way or the other it's a much better scene.

MURRAY
Lavinia, what plans have you made for your old age?

COHN-SHERBOK
Well we don't have children so I do not expect anybody to look after me and indeed I'm already paying into an insurance scheme. I do feel very strongly that I hope I shall live a very long time but I intend to move into an old people's home early rather than late and I hope I shall go in with my hearing aid wound up to its highest extent, with my cataracts removed, with my stick with a yellow ribbon round it and I shall establish myself, I hope, as an extremely difficult old lady that the staff need to look after and pay attention to. And actually I mean I'm a novelist so I do write anonymous novels in my spare time and I hope I shall be in a position to get out my word processor and write a very scurrilous novel about how absolutely deplorable the management of the old people's home is and how corrupt the visiting committee is, how splendid the staff are and how disgraceful the whole care of old people is in this country.

MURRAY
Well the best of luck with it. Lavinia Cohn-Sherbok and Katharine Whitehorn. And if you'd like information about what we were discussing do call the action line.



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