Sunday, April 6, 2008

Age Shall Not Wither Them

Muka finally went blind last night. At 3am we heard the howling and found her butting the side of the open kitchen door. I put on all the lights, but still she couldn’t see her way out. She howled her fear until I stroked her brow and put my face next to hers. She laid her head on my neck and licked my ear, then, her big cow eyes unblinking, I gently led her step by step to the safety of her own bed.

Muka is a survivor. Joanna found her 13 years ago in a Los Angeles dog pound. She’d been rescued from the notorious South Central neighbourhood. Muka’s twin sister had already been put down, and it was her turn for execution that very afternoon. For months Jo nurtured her as the fur, destroyed by mange, slowly grew back on the enormous bat-like ears. Muka – quarter Staffordshire, quarter Lab, the rest anyone’s guess – has been at the centre of my life since Jo and I met. As her pack grew, she welcomed newcomers: Poncho the cat, and Truffle, our one-year old cocker. She is flatulent and seventeen and we all adore her.

Muka’s degeneration has been sudden. Last summer she was racing with Truffle across the fields behind the house. Now she trips over flowerpots as she shuffles her arthritic body round the garden.

We all have to accept the inevitability of old age, but it’s the speed of decay that I can’t get used to. My mother is 87. She’s independent, has her own house and car (she even recently got a speeding ticket), goes on international holidays and still teaches painting. Strong as an ox, she spent last weekend helping me plant my potatoes. Her mind is full of a lifetime’s experience and judgment.

Mum and I talked about the inevitable last week, sitting with a large gin and tonic, and Muka, big ears listening for the drop of crisps, at our feet. We weren’t being gloomy, just practical (she’s been showing me her funeral plot and where she keeps her Will every year since 1989). Her five brothers and sisters lasted into their nineties. She lost a brother last year, and her sister’s funeral was on Friday. Most of her friends have already gone. Mortality stares at us, and yet, to me, Mum hasn’t changed since she was sixty: opinionated, annoying, and utterly resilient. It’s her independence that impresses me most. An independence you see in so many of our elderly. And which, in a way, is their greatest threat.

For my generation tends to let our parents get on with things on their own. The disintegration of ‘family’, which began in the fifties, has now virtually stripped the word of any social meaning and left separate generations walled up in self-contained units, only opening their doors at Christmas and Easter.

Sure, society makes the odd gesture, probably to assuage communal guilt. Everyone over sixty got a free local bus pass this week (but no national train pass); there’s a winter fuel allowance, which against the rocketing cost of fuel is worth a fraction of what it used to be. Yet my mother, with a tiny state pension her only reward for a lifetime of national insurance and tax, instead of relaxing and enjoying her independence worries about every penny spent as if she were still in the days of rationing. How obscene that we, living under a supposedly Socialist government, charge our old people Council Tax. Especially as, thanks to the fragmentation of society that we have engineered, most of these old people now live alone.

It’s time Britain undertook a proper review of how we treat the aged. For when my own light begins to fade, I want to live my last days in a society which looks after its elderly at least as well as its dogs.

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