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Why it is time we put youth first – and let the old take care of themselves

The traumas of the Covid-19 lockdown are all too real. We must appreciate that survival is not only a matter of preserving the body – emotional nourishment is vital, too.

By Salley Vickers

As we enter another lockdown there are renewed calls to protect the old and vulnerable. My principal concerns to date have been for the young. My granddaughter has now been sent home twice from school due to a solitary Covid case – and this in her GCSE year when she is already badly demoralised. Friends have children at university, moping in student halls with little to do other than drink, take drugs and succumb to varieties of mental disorder. One child of an acquaintance recently took her own life in despair at a future which seemed to offer no promise.

For these reasons, I have advocated in the press to put youth first and let the old (among whom I reluctantly number myself) who are of sound mind take care of themselves.

My feeling is that if I catch the virus I will either recover or die. If I recover, well and good. In that case, while immune, I can return to my profession as a psychotherapist and help the all too many whose emotional health is suffering. If I die, well, frankly, too bad.

My generation – those born between 1945 and the mid-1960s – has lived through one of the truly remarkable eras, with a functioning NHS, free university education, full employment and the chance to buy our own homes. We’ve had it good and I am grateful. But a recent anniversary of my mother’s birthday set my thoughts towards those elderly people who are less lucky than I have been.

My mother always dreaded getting Alzheimer’s – both her mother and her brother had succumbed to its horrors. She was a double amputee, having lost her legs, aged only 22, in a wartime bombing, but her spirit remained indomitable.

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When the symptoms began to appear, my father – who had been a prisoner of war in Germany and Poland between 1940 and 1945, and had come home to find his bride was severely disabled – stiffened his upper lip and took care of her. He mastered cooking and cleaning and hauled my mother on and off the loo until she became incontinent. Then he changed her nappies.

[see also: Why scientists fear the “toxic” Covid-19 debate]

He persevered with devoted care through two minor strokes until the last one paralysed his arm. But so wedded was he to my mother that when we found her a care home near Selborne, where the 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White wrote his famous A Natural History of Selborne (1789, a favourite of my father’s), Dad decided to move into the home too, even though his mind was sharp and he far preferred to fend for himself.

He took up residence in the non-Alzheimer’s wing so that he could visit my mother every day. Over time she forgot who we all were – I became her school friend, Mary Squires, and my children her brothers. Dad filled a number of roles, her own father, her close friend Arnold Kettle (the father of the Guardian journalist Martin Kettle) and her lover, Ram Nahum, a Cambridge physicist who was killed by the bomb which took her legs (in his autobiography, Eric Hobsbawm described Nahum as “the ablest of all communist student leaders of my generation”).

My father bore these sometimes-hurtful misperceptions with characteristic stoicism. The point was, while she didn’t know who he was she knew that he loved her.

Then one day, in 2006, a flu outbreak coursed through the Alzheimer’s wing and my father was barred from visits. He fretted so much about this that I visited the home to beg he be allowed to see her. “He doesn’t care if he catches flu,” I pleaded. “He’d rather risk his own health because he loves her.” The argument had no effect. The reason given was that he might catch the virus and infect his fellow residents. We suggested that he self-isolate (yes, we were ahead of that game). Dad even offered to move into my mother’s room to be near her. No joy. For ten days he was kept from her. On the 11th day she died.

The doctors wrote “pneumonia” on her death certificate, unaware that she had been vaccinated against it. Glenys, the nurse closest to her, agreed that my mother had shown no signs of physical ill health. “To be honest, I reckon she died of a broken heart,” Glenys confided. I thought so too. For the short remainder of his life, Dad never got over the feeling that he had let his wife of more than 66 years down.

[see also: Leader: Locked down again]

Why am I writing of this painful episode in my family’s life? It is because even if we are alert to the physical dangers of Covid-19, people must have a better appreciation that survival is not only a matter of preserving the body. As a former psychologist, working with victims of trauma, I have seen how emotional nourishment is vital for survival and recovery. As the Italian author and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi knew all too well, those who survived the Nazi concentration camps nearly always did so because they kept intact some crucial life-affirming relationship.

At the start of the pandemic, the government failed to protect those in care homes. It will continue to fail them if the lockdown rules insist on separating elderly care residents from those they love.

The John’s Campaign, which campaigns for people with dementia to be supported by family carers, in September mounted a legal challenge against the ban on family visits to care homes in high risk areas. Visits from children and grandchildren may be what keeps care home residents alive.

Restricting access may protect bodies, but if hope dies the frail body withers. Spare a thought, too, for those, like myself, not in care homes but living alone. Many of them I have talked to would prefer to risk a shortening of their lives than a barren existence in cheerless solitude.

Humankind does not live by bread alone, as the man who preached a philosophy of love is alleged to have said. There is such a thing as emotional and spiritual starvation. The government must take advice from psychologists as well as medical experts. If the virus becomes an irradicable presence in the world, we all need to do more than just survive; we need also the means and desire to live. 

Salley Vickers is a former psychoanalyst and a novelist. Her novel “Grandmothers” (Penguin) is out on paperback

[see also: Devi Sridhar: How the UK can avoid an endless cycle of lockdowns​]

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This article appears in the 04 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos