Agony Aunt explores how baby boomers are now key carers

If you look at the figures on the UK’s ageing population they beg the question ‘Can the Queen keep up with it all?’

Traditionally, her Majesty has always kindly sent a special birthday card to each one of her subjects who lived long enough to see their 100th birthday. But with one in six of the UK’s population now aged 65 or over, our poor old Queen may soon end up doing nothing else but sitting there, day after day, signing a never-ending conveyor belt of birthday greetings, as more and more people beyond the Palace gates celebrate their centenary.

But no matter how many cards the Queen has to write, the real burden of parental care is falling on the middle-aged in society – people like you and me – who were born in the baby boom and now face the prospect of spending all our Summers of Love caring for our dear old mums and dads.

Talking of the baby boom, I saw a 72-year-old Mick Jagger strutting along the King’s Road this week (on his way to open a new exhibition on The Rolling Stones) with the same spring in his step that he had back in the Swinging Sixties. But although this Jack Flash is still actively Jumpin’, we shouldn’t always be fooled by the modern image of ‘old people’.

Ad execs (now thankfully called Mad Men) gave us the socio-demographic of the Silver Surfer (aged 65+, with pockets full of money and a house now empty of kids) who (according to advertisements for holidays and investment products) spend their days in open top sports cars driving along winding roads on America’s West Coast or in the South of France, without a carer in the world. That’s not a typo by the way. But the truth is many Silver Surfers struggle to even stand up (which is important for surfers, so I hear …) let alone ride the wave of retirement.

As a young pup reporter I remember being sent out to care homes to interview and photograph ‘old people’ with 100 candles on their cakes. My memory of these birthday boys and girls is of proud people, with frail bodies and contented but tired eyes. They sat in chairs, with their heads slightly titled to one side; struggling to listen and keep up with what was going on around them, but smiling and enjoying it all deep inside, somewhere.

My grandmother – aged 95, one of 18 children, who lost her home during the Blitz in Coventry in 1941 – now has dementia. Whenever I used to ask her ‘Are you alright nan?” she always used to say ‘Well, I’m still breathing’ or (her favourite) ‘No, I’m half left …’) But today, she would just look at me, squinting, trying to place me …

So, as the reality of old age kicks in (and the cabriolets of California or Cannes grind to a halt, if they existed in the first place) let’s explore the new phenomenon within many modern families: “Is the time and emotional energy it takes to care for elderly parents starting to effect your career?”

If the short answer is “yes” (and short answers are fine, given how stretched you are already caring for your children, your parents and, oh yes, your careers …) then at least take some comfort in the fact that you are not alone. This is the scale of the issue now facing society in Britain;

  • 10 million people in the UK are now aged 65 or over
  • By 2050, this figure will have nearly doubled to 19 million
  • 3 million people in the UK are aged 80 or over, and this figure is set to reach 8 million by 2050.

That’s good news for the future of Britain’s tartan blanket industry (I don’t know why but that line reminded me of the late, great Ronnie Corbett, who lived until the age of 85 until last week) … but not so great for the tens of thousands of middle-aged professionals who already have busy work, family and social lives – and not the time or space to think about caring for their parents on top of all their other key responsibilities and commitments.

Between friends, I hope it’s not too cold or callous (is it?) to say we have grown up thinking that pensions, care homes and retirement plans would look after our parents in later life. We didn’t think we’d ‘end up’ (a great telling phrase) being the ones who have to care for our parents in such a continuous and hands-on way.

Regardless of what Philip Larkin (who also came from Coventry) once wrote about, shall we call it, the ‘influence’ parents can have on their children, we do still love them. We call on the phone, of course. We visit, once in a while. We send birthday and Christmas cards (usually … ok, so often a few days late) but look after them? What? That was never part of the plan.

When you move out of the family home – after college, after landing your first serious job or after one too many parties where you raided your parents’ drinks cabinet (yet again) – you think that’s it. You are leaving the family nest, and your nuclear family will live under the same roof again.

But just as business models are being turned upside down, or certainly changed, the family model is changing too. So with private care costs (like house prices) now beyond most peoples’ reach, how do you adjust into your new role as ‘carer’ – cleaning your parents’ house, looking after their garden, cooking dinner, taking them to the doctors, or (the big one) moving your mum and/or dad into your own family home – when the day comes when they just can’t cope any more?

The key word is support. Support for you and your parents. And, from the outset, my advice is reach out for and accept this support as soon and as much as you can, because caring for elderly parents brings real practical, financial and emotional challenges for us all.

  • Get in touch with your local council to arrange a carer’s assessment for yourself. This will give you a professional perspective on what kind of support you need to successfully care for your parents.
  • Remember the carer’s assessment does not measure if you are a good carer or not. It works out how much support you need. So be honest about how much care your parents need, and how much care you can give them, set against the other demands on your time.
  • Prepare to deal with generational attitudes that lead some elderly parents to reject external help from the local authority. A lot of people, through both pride and being in denial about actually needing care, try to cope without external support, which only makes the situation worse for you as their main carer.
  • Contact your local Social Services to get a professional assessment of your parents’ health and social care needs. This may lead to you getting support from the local authority, with any equipment you may need installed at home, so the property (yours or theirs) is suitable for your parents.
  • Work out how much any external care will cost, and work this into your overall finances.
  • High quality care can come in the simplest of ways – from reading, playing music and just talking.
  • And remember to take regular breaks from being the main carer. It is vitally important – for your own well-being, family and career – that the care you provide to your parents does not consume all your time. It’s very human and honorable to take on the role of carer (this is your mum and dad after all …) but you will be in better shape – as a parent, an employer or employee and their carer – if you step to one side and let someone else take over, so your own independent life can continue. This is where other family members must step in and play their part (but sadly, I know this can be easier said than done).

Support does exist. But there are two worrying trends. The first relates to the speed at which business adjusts to social change. Look at the many years it has taken society to make flexible working a reality for parents who want to care for their children as well as their careers. With this track record, we should not expect companies to embrace flexibility based on parental care at any great speed. Having time off, or working flexible hours, to look after your child is made a lot easier by the fact that you can bring your beautiful little boy or girl into the office and melt the heart of even the toughest boss. You can’t really drag your old mum or dad into work, dressed in their overcoat and their old slippers, moaning about this and that, and expect your colleagues to respond in the same ‘goo goo, gaa gaa’ way.

The second relates to who does the caring. In families where there is a son and daughter, there appears to be an unsaid, unquestioned rule that the daughter should take on the role of the carer, sometimes regardless of geography, economics or much else. We have quickly and quietly assumed that caring for your parents, just like raising children, is women’s work. It’s not, it’s the responsibility of the children of those elderly parents, no matter what sex those children may be.

It’s taken women in the UK too long to get to the still unfair position around equality in the workplace, with gender pay gaps still being far too far apart, the number of women in senior roles still being far too low and the whole idea around starting and raising a family being one of ‘shared’ parental leave.

In the last five years, 200,000 women in two-parent families with children have returned to work. That is something we should celebrate and build on. It will be a tragedy, and a major step back, if we allow the issues around our ageing population to put these women back in the home once more, with their talents and their productivity discarded because they are now expected to care for their elderly parents.

We love our Queen for her sense of duty, her workload and how she sits at the head of our Royal Family. Every woman has the right to lead such a full and fascinating life. Every woman has the right to successfully combine work and family – caring for both their careers and their loved ones, from new born babies to old centurions. And, judging by the Queen’ health and well-being at her grand age of 89, it’s clearly a very happy and human way to live life. Despite having to write all those birthday cards …