Neighbours, friends and parents

This one’s for Isabella Purves.

My neighbour, Mr P, had another heart operation. He used to walk, with many pauses, round the block aided by his frame. These days, between family visits, the nearest he gets to going out is sitting on a stool in his tiny sun-baked porch in his shirt and no socks. Our street is a bit of a backwater so it must be very boring. He is the epitome of frail, but his mind is very sharp. I offer anything they need. Mrs P says “You are busy” and Mr P demands imperiously that I write him a daily itinerary and then arrange it. He is trying it on.

I went to invite another long-retired neighbour round for a beer. Turned out he had just returned from cooking dinner for a friend who had an operation and couldn’t bend. He wanted some me-time.

My dad retired on Friday, from the only job of his career (I think this is very cool). He views his retirement as a beginning.

In fact, I’m not confident about what I need to be doing here. In my younger days I was over-dutiful, partly because I spent too much time reading my dad’s old childhood books replete with excellent role models for boys and terrible role models for girls (meek, long-suffering). I was prone to over-commit, burn out, and now I’m in the wary phase of that pendulum swing. I know any number of women who have quietly and nobly picked up responsibilities of caring for family members, friends, neighbours – but relatively few men (my father in sin and our neighbour being exceptions) and I’m not about to quietly go along with this. But it is time to start thinking about what it is to be neighbourly, a more physically-able friend, and an adult with parents.

Isabella Purves died and her body lay unfound in her flat for five years. She seemed like a private person. Nobody says whether it’s more likely she fell ill and died through neglect of her illness, or whether her death was sudden. So it’s not clear whether she died because nobody was looking out for her, but it is clear that she could well have and this is a terrible thought. If that happened to anybody I know in my road I’d feel I’d failed on a very fundamental level. But what about the people I see but don’t know? There’s a man I tend not to speak to because he clearly dislikes me and told me the area was getting too cosmopolitan.

I’m not sure whether to take various reports about Isabella Purves’ taciturness at face value, or what it would imply if one didn’t. I looked at Age Concern and Help The Aged Scotland and there was nothing in their campaigns about the loneliness or isolation which affect so many solitary older people. But for people who value their independence and privacy, there’s a substantial report about emerging smart solutions which don’t involve giving the neighbours a key and feeling obliged to take phone calls lest you trigger an unwanted knock at the door. Smart homes have motion sensors and if you don’t do certain basic activities of daily living such as opening the fridge, say, or going to the toilet, somebody you have designated (neighbourliness can come in here) calls you, and if you don’t pick up, can activate an entry system to see if you are OK. These technologies are socially situated, but their power for good is evident. They were around when Isabella Purves died in 2004, and hopefully they will make up part of new forms of neighbourhood care which will help those people who want to make use of them remain in their own homes living life at their own shaping for as long as they want to be there.

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