Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Wednesday 9 May 2012

Those whom the gods love...

IF YOU'RE very lucky you'll die before you get old.

It used to be the other way around - that getting old was a piece of good fortune which meant you got to spend time with grandchildren, kick back and relax.

Not any more. Those citizens are no longer seen as senior.

If you survive the granny tax you'll be caught by the pension reforms. If you get a winter fuel payment the power companies put prices up (they never put them down, has anyone noticed?). If you exercise your right to vote whatever government gets in will ignore your needs, and when you need a little help it won't materialise unless you pay through the nose with money you haven't got.

When I grew up we spent a lot of time with older people. My parents made sure I had a good relationship with all my grandparents, at harvest festival the teachers would take us to the local sheltered housing to hand out donated food, and once a week the local Darby & Joan club would eat in the school hall and the pupils served them lunch.

My gran gave up her spare time to visit a geriatric hospital with the Women's Royal Voluntary Service. At half-term she would take me along with her as she pushed a trolley of cosmetics and sweets around the wards, selling them to the patients and having a little chat.

The hospital was old, but clean. There were patients who had been there for years and would die there, and others who were in temporarily. One or two had serious psychological problems and dementia. Quite a few made a fuss of me - I must have been about nine or ten I suppose - because they didn't get to see their own grandchildren very often.

Sometimes I had to go through these patients' bedside tables to find their purses so they could count out their change to buy some shampoo, and try to understand barely-there words from mouths without dentures. My gran always spoke about them as though they were old - when to my young eyes she wasn't an awful lot different, because she had white hair and wrinkles and sometimes walked with a stick.

I remember saying something like that to her once, and she replied: "I'm 16 on the inside."

I've never forgotten that, or the lesson that is gained from spending lots of time with people outside your normal social circle. When she gave me 50p pocket money and I looked a bit scornful my mum told me that she was poor, and to be thankful. And when Gran trounced me at every card game we ever played, laughing her head off, I learned that luck is what you make it.

My gran died at the age of 76, after six weeks in which her organs slowly gave up on her one at a time after an infection. In her last conscious moments she was giggling with my mum about a new handbag, which gave exactly the same kind of joy to her inner 16-year-old that it always had. Up to the end she always wore shoes with a slight heel, and freesia perfume.

She used to buy Christmas presents in the January sales, so about a month after she died I got the present she'd been keeping for me all year - a Parker pen, because she knew I wanted to be a journalist.

I was 15 when she died and because I had the blessing of knowing her well she's still with me. And when I see stories like that of Emma Winnall, a great-grandmother beaten almost to death in her own bed, I know exactly what she would have said.

She would have said that Emma didn't see herself as old, or frail, or want to be a pain to anyone else. She would have said that this 93-year-old lady felt no different on the inside than she had as a girl, even when her body let her down and needed a pacemaker and two replacement hips.

She would have said that the reason Emma was beaten senseless, leaving her with a fractured skull, broken arm and wrist, and partially severed finger, was because there was someone, somewhere, who didn't have a grandmother of their own.

And she would say the deeper cause was the disgusting way we treat our older citizens.

She would be horrified that the number of elderly patients who die with bedsores had risen 50 per cent in a decade to 27,000 in 2010. She'd be appalled that four, generally old, people die of dehydration and starvation on our wards every day because they are left to feed and water themselves and cannot do so. And she'd be worried that hospital she used to visit closed down a long time ago, and its patients now have to fend for themselves.

She'd point out older people are nearly a fifth of the population, that the number of people over 85 has doubled since 1985, and that they have electoral power if only they want to seize it.

She'd say that we're all going to need looking after one day and unlike our leaders would try to come up with suggestions for a way to fund it, to keep people working if they want to, to stop people losing their homes and the rest of society losing respect for those who came before us.

But more than anything else, I think she'd say that she was glad she wasn't here any more.

If she was, she'd be about the same age as Emma Winnall - which is 16 on the inside.

* There is a £5,000 reward to help catch Emma's attacker. Anyone with information can contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

EDIT: Emma passed away on May 28 as a result of the injuries she sustained. The investigation is now being treated as a murder inquiry.