FOR many of us, as the years advance, it’s the fear ...

Date: Friday 16th February 2018

FOR many of us, as the years advance, it’s the fear of growing old rather than dying that haunts our darker moments. What we’ve been and what we’ve done becomes an irrelevance once we become part of the zimmer brigade.

I’m as fond of a bit of poetry as the next man and woman, but that’s about as far as it goes. However, the other night I had the radio tuned to Radio 4 when a program called Poetry Please was playing in the background.

It was a poem, April Sunshine, by Jackie Kay, Scotland’s National Poet, that grabbed my attention and really hit home the message about how older people are viewed once they are no longer mobile and are confined to care homes and hospitals.

Jackie Kay was born in Edinburgh to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father and adopted by Helen and John as a baby. They were kind, open-minded, politically active and culturally attuned, but now both were in a hospital where nobody was particularly interested or aware of their interesting lives before they became old and diminished in people’s eyes.

It’s a distinctly moving poem with a plea to look beyond what you see. It tells of her parents’ past interest in the arts and politics. How they marched for CND, wrote to Nelson Mandela and 50 other prisoners in apartheid South Africa, how they lived long lives for democracy and how, in homes and hospitals, such things are no longer remembered. “In this hospital this bleak mid winter,/You were just an old woman;/You were just an old man.”

As people grow old it’s true they are treated differently. Physical frailty is something to be patronised. True, we sometimes laugh at our own arthritic infirmities. Otherwise we’d cry for lost youth. The footballer Jimmy Armfield, who died recently, was once asked, in his 80s, was there one thing he wished he could do again. “Yes,” he said. “Play football one more time.” Fortunately Armfield was active as a respected radio pundit well into old age. Sadly only a few older people have that opportunity or the health and energy to sustain it.

People, says Kay, see our shells and not what we did before infirmity struck. In her empathy with her aged parents there is anger. She encourages her readers to “spit out” the word “just”. In her poem about the old couple waiting out the winter in the hope of seeing another spring, there are echoes of a social care scandal that is largely brushed away by politicians and is leading to a country where it is almost counted as a blessing to die young.

Regulators have to take “enforcement action” against failing social care providers four times every day following complaints of abuse, improper treatment and inadequate staffing levels. There were more than 1,500 interventions by the Care Quality Commission in 2016-17, an alarming increase of two thirds in just 12 months.

Yet MPs close their eyes to the funding of decent care for our ageing population. Too expensive. Too politically hazardous to confront. It is far simpler to commit billions of pounds to overseas aid where we are buying political influence.

While many care homes provide an excellent and caring service, there continue to emerge those horror stories, usually prompted by television documentaries, of elderly people being admitted to hospital with malnutrition, hypothermia and dehydration. Until politicians set party interests aside and agree to work together to find ways of putting social care and NHS funding on a sustainable footing, these issues will continue to flare up.

Meanwhile we have a new minister for loneliness. Tracey Crouch will be responsible for developing a wider strategy, gathering evidence and providing funding for community groups.

The background to Theresa May’s decision to appoint the minister makes for depressing reading. Research shows nine million of us live in isolation and a staggering 200,000 elderly go weeks without talking to a relative or friend. It’s not just shame on our politicians, it’s shame on all of us that our elderly are allowed to become so invisible.

Zoe Adams, executive director of the Red Cross, says it’s “a crisis facing our country that will no longer be ignored”. Loneliness and social isolation impact far more widely than the sadness of the forgotten elderly. Higher levels of loneliness are now being reported among younger age groups.

While government has to lead the way, we all ought to have some responsibility if the current loneliness “epidemic” is to be brought under control.

The Who put it more directly when they sang “hope I die before I get old” in the 60s. Jackie Kay’s lament for the diminished elderly touched me just as trenchantly. As one newspaper headline put it recently — “we should not have to fear growing old”. But too many of us do.


WHAT’S more hazardous for an aspiring hotel or restaurant than getting on Trip Advisor, with the risk that among the favourable reviews you will get the occasional blackmail threat.

Or inviting, wittingly or not, the new food reviewer of The Guardian — the all-singing and dancing tabloid-shaped Guardian — into your dining room.

A Yorkshire restaurant, which has had nothing but acclaim of late, suddenly discovered the other side of all that free advertising online with Trip Advisor.

Customers who called off a booking at the last minute were asked, as per the conditions of booking, to pay a cancellation charge. The restaurant was advised it would get a bad online review if it did not waive the fee.

Nothing new. British Hospitality Association research found that 85 per cent. of British hotels and restaurants have fallen victim to malicious and fake reviews on-line. Carlisle-born restaurant critic Grace Dent, who once wrote a Grace and Flavour column for the Evening Standard and has appeared as a judge on Masterchef, was clearly not amused when she returned to the Lake District for her first review in the new job at the Guardian.

Having chosen an Ullswater hotel for her stylish invective, Ms Dent wrote generally of our Lakeland hotels that they are “a paean to chintz, antimacassars and joy-free service”.

I’m not going to rub in the pain by naming the hotel where Grace Dent dined, suffice to say she found the name “stupid and confusing”. And the rest of it, the food and the service and the ambience. Let’s say she was unimpressed. “I’m still conflicted about the Lake District trying to be hip,” she wrote. “And it’s clear some people are keen. They’re just really rather bad at it.”

However, there was a ray of light in her review. “Go to the Pheasant Inn on Crosthwaite Road in Keswick instead,” she exhorted readers. See, you can never be sure who that picky diner with the niffy Labrador under the table turns out to be. Seems we’re not all rubbish at food then, Grace.


EVER wondered where those overpaid, overblown autocue readers on the telly get their news items from? Well, often it’s folk like us. Local newspaper hacks who do all the leg work only to see our investigations and hard work filched by national news outlets who employ people to pore over local and regional papers and lift likely items. They get paid about 10 times more than the reporter who originated the story, but hey, who worries about that sort of inequality?

Theresa May says newspapers are the “bedrock of democracy and informed opinion”. Good for her. I know what you’re thinking. He would say that. But I believe the local press does try to stay above the rabble-rousing rubbish on social media and provide a platform for debate on issues that affect local people.

More than 200 papers have closed in the last five years. Now the House of Lords wants to put more out of business by backing a call for full court costs in libel cases to be met by newspapers, even when the case is thrown out.

Social media has its role, but remember who you go to for help when all else has failed, who holds MPs and councillors to account, asks questions about how they spend your money and tells you who has been in court, records deaths of people who were loved in their communities and many more local topics.

The Prime Minister is rightly resisting the draconian legislation wanted by many who sit in that unelected and some would say unwanted Other Place.