‘Don’t hug Grandma if you want her to live!” Short of chucking in a basketful of puppies and kittens at death’s door due to our collective horribly selfish behaviour, could there be a quicker way to make our increasingly sceptical nation abide by the ever-changing rules of lockdown?
As if Chris Whitty wasn’t regarded as being there to do Boris’s dirty work anyway, his pronouncement this week – “Would I encourage someone to hug and kiss their elderly relatives? No, I would not… if you want them to survive to be hugged again” – has established him as the ultimate pantomime villain of the whole horror show. He’s two metres behind you!
Everyone adores their grandma. You often meet people who hated their mum or their dad or some sibling, but I’ve never met a single person who swore passionately “my nan ruined my life!”
But even in a crowded and competitive field, I bet I loved my gran the most. My paternal grandmother Eliza – the only one of the four grands I ever met – was white-haired and twinkly-eyed, but there her resemblance to a storybook granny ended because, by nature, she was more of a big bad wolf. Obsessed with all-in wrestling (she would often topple face-first from her easy chair when especially excited, and we grandchildren would rush forward to winch her back up), she ran something of a Fagin’s den for my cousins and myself, encouraging us to truant from school in order to nip out and do her “errands” for her, be they shoplifting humbugs or collecting her “medicine” from the “bottle and jug”.
Though illiterate, she took a keen interest in the playful possibilities of language, often leaning from the window on spying the Catholic priest calling on her next-door neighbours and cackling: “Don’t come in here, Father, we’ve always been prostitutes in our family!”
We are sentimental about the old in the way we used to be about children, who we now see as wise moral arbiters, for some strange reason; perversely, the very young and the very old have switched places. But being an old lady – and because men die on average three years earlier than women, there are more of them – isn’t all nightcaps and antimacassars. Living through a depression and a war, risking the pension pennies in your purse every time you pass some feral youth, dumped in a “care” home by ungrateful kids – and then, just when you’ve made yourself at home in the “home”, you’re declared a plague hot-spot and only allowed to gesture through windows at loved ones.
Thus, after Whitty’s warnings, it was a blessed relief when the Government pledged that relatives of care homes in England will be able to hug elderly relations before Christmas if they test negative for coronavirus and wear protective equipment. I used to work in a care home for old blind ladies and thought it was a very civilised place, I quit it in the end because the sheer hope of the residents, their reliance on visitors from the outside world to give them a reason to get up in the morning, made me feel so sad. When a visit was due they’d talk about it excitedly for days before and then reminisce about it for days after. Those who didn’t get visitors would often sit in the lobby in preference to the comfortable recreation rooms, because they could hear the automated door opening and closing and it made them feel some connection, however slight, to the outside realm they craved.
We pride ourselves on keeping our old people alive to an ever-increasing age, but a life lived without loved ones is no life at all. Our elderly were raised to be tough and realistic, in a world where crying when you couldn’t get your way was abandoned with nappies – not the norm whenever a colleague thought differently from you. They are our link to a can-do/musn’t grumble world that we have irretrievably lost.
Let’s not make them live in a baffling bubble for the last few years of their lives, forever straining to hear an echo of the real world, where they led real lives.