This year I invented a septuagenarian mother - and started to worry about her

She’s able-bodied, can look after herself and is solvent. So why have I started to worry about her so much?

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I have developed a new hobby: worrying about my mother. It started as a minor thing: if she didn’t call me or didn’t update her Instagram for a few days, I would start to worry. Perhaps she’s been knocked off her bike? Maybe something’s happened? Why don’t I call more often?

A few months ago, she had some odd blood test results, which sent me into a quiet – and in some cases not so quiet – bout of anxiety. One of the things we have in common is a tendency to, when asked how we are, start with a series of barely connected anecdotes, drifting hopelessly off topic, and only after a good hour or so of conversation revealing some vitally important fact about our life or work. So I wasn’t sure if she was deliberately avoiding the subject in order not to worry me during the general election, or simply not getting around to it.

After a series of texts and emails in which the central issue kept being diverted by conversations about the contents of our veg boxes, what our respective partners were up to and the election, I called in a state of considerable worry, only to find that she’d been given the all-clear months ago and simply hadn’t realised it might be preying on my mind.

When I was about seven, I decided that I was quite old enough to make the Tube journey from home to school alone – and promptly got lost. When I heard that my mother had been given the all-clear, I experienced something of the strange combination of relief, love and blind rage that she must have grappled with when I turned up safe and sound. Didn’t she realise that I was out of my mind with worry?

Why should she? My behaviour seems like the model of good filial concern, until you remember that my mother is only a little over 50, which instantly moves it from “sweet” to “borderline deranged”. She’s able-bodied, can look after herself and is solvent. So why have I started to worry about her so much?

Competitiveness is part of the answer. While most of my school friends have parents of a similar age, the friends I’ve made later in life tend to have parents who have a decade, often two, on mine. And, of course, there’s a world of difference between a parent approaching the middle of their sixth decade and one approaching the middle of their eighth.

Some people of my age compete over the progress of their toddlers and how quickly they learn to crawl, while others swap anecdotes about going home to help an aged parent move to a smaller house, instal a new computer, or some other bit of long-distance care. An unlucky third group has to juggle both.

I don’t have children so I cannot develop a matching set of neuroses over the length of time that Tabitha has taken to learn to crawl, but I have, steadily and surely, started to construct a septuagenarian mother in my head, to match those I so often hear about.

I suspect that my reasons for doing so are partly to do with guilt – when my mum was my age she had a seven-year-old, and with every passing year I appreciate more the extent to which that changed the trajectory of her life. But the guilt works in another direction too. When I hear my friends with older parents talk about the difficulties of managing infirmities, and their awareness that they’re not doing more to help, I hold on to two sneaky hopes. The first is that by the time my mum becomes infirm I, too, will have started to get on a bit, so that no one will be able to hold my uselessness against me. The second is that the challenges of juggling care and work will be easier for me in my late fifties than they are for my friends currently doing so in their early thirties.

Of course, neither of these things is guaranteed, but I hold them in sufficient faith that I feel a pang of guilt whenever I hear my friends talk about their aged parents – and that guilt slowly curdles into anxiety about the invented elderly mother I have constructed in my head. One undoubted advantage I have is that British society is gradually coming to terms with its ageing population. My hope is that it will be easier for me, when my time comes, than it is for my unluckier friends – even if I am not allowed to blame my inability to care for my mother on my own advancing age.

But will it really be easier for me? While social care wasn’t the only question that Boris Johnson dodged during the general election campaign, it is among the biggest. Provision for carers – funded at almost the same inadequate rate as Jobseeker’s Allowance – continues to be threadbare, and there is little recognition from either major party that the social care solution is going to involve higher taxes on property wealth.

Johnson’s avoidance of the issue was largely reported as clever politics – a sign that, unlike Theresa May, he had no intention of putting forward anything that might resolve the crisis. It was treated as wise – statesmanlike, almost – to go to the country promising nothing more detailed on one of the most pressing problems of the age than to have a jolly good think about it. 

May’s solution was that anyone with assets worth more than £23,250 would have had to pay for the costs of their care but could defer payment until after they died, which in practice meant that anyone with acute needs would have had to sell their home. This fell short because it was, in effect, a dementia lottery: die quickly and in good order and you kept your home and its contents, die slowly of a complex disease and you wouldn’t. Care for the elderly, like that of the sick, or the education of the young, requires a collective response and at least a measure of collective funding – and it needs much better treatment in the next election. I just hope that our politics receives the injection of honesty and radicalism that it badly needs before the 70-year-old I invented becomes real.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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