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We write them off as vulnerable, non-sexual burdens – but the elderly are not just a problem to be solved

A new regular column, "Nurse in the City", by Brian Kellett.

Have you heard of the “pink pound”? Of course you have – you read the New Statesman. I’m guessing that you also know about the “grey pound”, the demographic that takes in the elderly of this country.

You will know about the “ticking time bomb” of the ageing population and about how pensions are becoming so expensive that many of us will have to work until we are 68 or older. The elderly are also seen as “bed-blockers” who take up hospital places (though half of their hospital beds have been cut).

As a community nurse in east London, I spend most of my working day seeing people in their homes. You learn quite quickly in this job that the elderly are just as diverse as the rest of us and that it is misleading to refer to them as a homogenous lump. I used to work in various branches of emergency medicine. Back then, I saw patients for a very short time. After many years, I decided that struggling with drunks and dealing with young people who thought that a blocked nose was an emergency worthy of an ambulance were starting to wear a bit thin. Now, I have the time to get to know my patients and they get to know me. In many cases, we are on first-name terms. And each patient is different.

There is a woman I visit who is intensely proud of how clean she keeps her house, despite living on her own and being nearly blind. She has a little rota in her head – on Wednesday morning, she mops the floor (whether it needs it or not); in the afternoon, she vacuums the carpets; on Thursday, she dusts her house from top to bottom, and so on.

Then there is the woman who lives in a very mucky house – the sort of place that has you wiping your feet on the way out – and until recently would refuse all help from us. Finally, she agreed to let some people in to give it a tidy. It’s still dirty but there’s been a big improvement. I like both of these patients equally. They show their independence in different ways; they are quite happy in their way of life.

There are also the sisters who live together and are as thick as thieves (I swear they are conspiring to do something, like in Arsenic and Old Lace) and the woman who was thrown out for marrying a man from India – her family could not stand the “shame”. They drove her not only from her family home but from the village she grew up in.

The elderly, apparently, are nonsexual. Perhaps someone should tell that to the chap who says he enjoys looking at pornography, though “nothing down there” has been working for years, or the other man who has a wife and children but still flirts with me (it probably doesn’t help that I keep insisting on looking at his naked buttocks as part of his care package).

I see atheists, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jews. I see those with pin-sharp minds and those in the midst of dementia. I don’t need anniversaries to remind me of wars because I hear true stories about them on an almost daily basis. As I sit on the floor in front of my patients, bandaging their legs, I hear about how they became friends with German POWs, or how they drank themselves through Italy following their commander, or how they looked after their mates, or how they got to carry the “bastard big gun” because they were the tallest in their squad. For many of them, it was the formative experience of their life, not something simply to be trotted out every 25, 50 or 100 years and “celebrated”.

As I change their catheters, I listen to them talk about their time as union leaders; about strikes and how they did their best for their members. Some of them espouse political views that I disagree with. Sometimes, I nod my head and let it slide; at other times, I’ll have a good-hearted argument.

There seems to be a consensus that the elderly are vulnerable people who get abused in nursing homes, get pensions that are unsustainable, will freeze to death in a cold snap and take up valuable hospital beds, all at the expense of the “hard-working taxpayer”. But what we need to accept is that they are people and not just a problem to be solved.

Next week: Dr Phil Whitaker’s Health Matters

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain