I remember Ouma (Granny) Van Niekerk. She was old, very old to us; we were little kids then. I remember her demand for quiet on Sunday afternoons, and how proper we had to be in church. I remember her kindness, her careful frailty, her knitting and crochet work, and most of all I remember her old-fashioned, home made chicken pie, redolent with cloves, an aroma of love which drifted through the dim interior for most of the day before we finally sat down to supper. I remember her stories, and most of all I remember her bitter anger against the British.
Ouma Van Niekerk really was old. She had lived through the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) when she was in her early teens. The British invented concentration camps then, and put the Boers’ wives and children in them, because they could not catch the fast-moving commandos (mounted volunteer Boer militia), and their families were supporting them. Ouma could remember how the English starved the families in the camps, and fed them “ground glass” in their food. They refused to give them medical treatment when they got sick. She remembered the funerals, one after the other.
History tells us that perhaps 20 000 women and children died in these camps, within a period of 18 months.
I grew up with a perspective on the idea of concentration camps that Ouma Van Niekerk gave me, together with a clear sense of right and wrong, and of personal responsibility, which came from my parents as well as from Ouma and other adults.
Modern society has many aspects which are ugly. One of them is the loss to us of our grandparents.
There are multiple causes: the dissolution of the nuclear family, which limits available niches which the elderly can occupy; the cult of eternal youth, which gives rise to the desire to deny and hide old age away; the perception that we have a right to self-expression and self-satisfaction, which allows us to believe that rejecting the responsibility to care for ageing relatives is acceptable.
There are multiple effects, almost all of them bad.
For example, a family loses an additional member, and now has less resilience. Many old people, like Ouma Van Niekerk, have acquired a certain amount of wisdom, or at least perspective on life, simply by surviving. Without their contribution, a family battling through some crisis may not have enough resources to win through. The social cushioning of that family member who knows when they just need to allow someone to blow off steam, the wisdom and insight into a problem, the additional adult who can look after the kids when Mom just can’t take another hour of the screaming toddler; these are the resources I mean. And, too often, without just these resources, another family unit falls apart.
Since there is no other place for Gran, she is put in a ‘home’, often out of sight and out of mind. When I say there is ‘no other place’, I mean that none of the members of the broken home are prepared to make a place for her; nor are they prepared to put up with the inconvenience and emotional cost of living with her. (We can’t go to the seaside; what would we do with Grandma? Has Grandma wet the bed again? Where am I going to find a clean sheet? Yes, Grandma, you have told us how you met Grandad. About a thousand times.)
Guilt kicks in, since we know, at some level, that this ‘home’ is far from the ideal we wish existed. So we don’t visit much, since having to see how she lives makes us feel worse.
The kids grow up knowing only mother and – too often – divorced father, and quite likely one or two step-parents, as the failure of one marriage does not quench the hope of lifelong happiness, nor the fact of loneliness, nor, perhaps, the need for additional income.
The childrens’ only adult role models are their failed parents, and, perhaps, equally unsuccessful teachers.
Mother, at 43, still occasionally wears miniskirts, and might be seen at singles bars which hold people of a steadily greater average age. Mother never saw Great-grandma ageing with dignity, moving from stage to stage of life and always with a contribution to make; great-gran is in a home somewhere, and we the children have never visited her; she is almost a fiction, not real to us. Grandma has a new husband, but we can’t stand his children, so we don’t see them much either. Tolerance is not something our parents know much about.
One of our teachers at school is getting divorced. Apparently his wife left him for a younger man. Dad’s got a new sports car, have you seen it?
Young people have no history, no tradition. Where Grandad would have filled them in on where they came from, and Grandma would have told them family stories, there’s the TV. The box offers ‘role models’ like Michael Jackson, P Diddy, Paris Hilton and Justin Timberlake. Maybe there’s a reason kids today have trouble making sense of their lives in the real world.
People are growing up believing that anything painful, anything demanding effort, anything that is less than perfect, is actually intolerable. They expect life to work out; some of us might say that they believe the world owes them a living.
There has been no one in their lives who could tell them any different.
Do we wonder that they cannot make a go of marriage, of family?
The family falls apart, and the people who could have made a difference are merely photographs in a dusty album lying in the attic – or on the town dump.
So I wonder, and I am asking you to think about the question as well:
How much of our troubles are due to putting grandma in the old age home?
Of course this is far from the only cause. But has it not made a significant contribution?