Cruelty to the old
Of all the problems besetting our poor, battered country, I should have thought that one of the least urgent was the problem of moving its old people about. Anybody who travels a certain amount by train as I do will realise that old people are constantly on the move. In every compartment they can be seen flashing their false teeth from behind their Senior Citizens Railcards, exerting their special brand of dumb appeal to make one carry their suitcases and budgerigar cages for hundreds of yards to where their sullen relatives are waiting to collect them. Those with motor cars usually head for Somerset to drive in an endless convoy, very slowly in the middle of the road, round and round the country lanes as they await the awful moment of judgment when they will meet their Maker face to face.
Are these journeys really necessary? I should have thought that old people had a better chance of discovering that serenity of mind which is the hallmark of dignified old age if they tried staying in the same place. People would then visit them and listen to their wise saws and present instances, pretending not to notice the lean and slippered pantaloon or the gentle slide into second childishness and mere oblivion.
Old age holds many terrors in a godless generation, but immobility is surely the least of them. As a race, we are perfectly foul to our old people, turning them away from the family, and telling them they much prefer to be independent. Perhaps there is an awareness of this in the guilty, sentimental noises we all make whenever anyone mentions old age pensions. It is an observable fact that the greediest and most ruthlessly grasping trade union leaders are always the ones who make loudest noises about the old.
A document published by Age Concern, the National Old People's Welfare Council is ominously entitled Your Rights. It tells old people how to claim all the myriad cash benefits to which they are entitled in addition to their basic retirement pensions; it guides them through the extra weekly allowances under supplementary benefit, rent and rate rebates, attendance allowances, tells them how to avoid charges on the national health service, how to acquire wigs, fabric supports, teeth and eyes, legal help, income tax allowances and even, as a last resort, how to apply for the Death Grant (full rate £30, reduced rate f15): 'If the person who has died was aged 87 (or 92 for a man) before 5 July 1975 no grant will be paid. If theykic ] were aged 77 (or 82 for a man) before 's July 1975, only the reduced grant will be paid.'
All you have to do is to call in at the local social security office with your death certificate. 'You should also take your marriage certificate and a written estimate of the cost of the funeral.'
But I can't help feeling that this is the wrong approach to the dreadful spectre of death which haunts us all, or at any rate nearly all of us. We buy off the dead and dying with extravagant bribes and tell them to go to the local social security office. A final chapter of the gruesome booklet is devoted to Travel Concessions, urging the, advantages of the Senior Citizens Railcard `to any man aged 65 or more and any woman aged 60 or more living in the United Kingdom provided you can give proof of your age.'
Why, just look at my teeth, you fool, or cut me in half and count the rings in my trunk. But it's no good pretending they can get to heaven on a Senior Citizens' Railcard.
Problems of old age can't be solved by putting,old people on some sort of British Rail merry-go-round and hoping that under the stimulation of constant movement they will forget their falling teeth and hair, their ungrateful children, their problems of forgetfulness and incontinence and personal hygiene. We need an entirely new policy something to inspire hope and gladness, a sense of belonging and of usefulness. It is simply not enough to shut them in a train and wave them off from the platform. Quite apart from the cruelty involved there is the consideration that other people — wage-earners, wealth-producers or what you will — have to travel by train as well, and it is rapidly becoming impossible with all these subsidised old people being pushed around, backwards and forwards, for no
reason at all. A humane transport policy would try and discourage them from travelling, adding a premium on the price of any ticket sold to a woman over sixty, a man over sixty-five. This would nominally be in recognition of the additional nuisance they are likely to cause to their fellow passengers, but in fact it would be to encourage them to stay at home and acquire a little dignity.
So it was with great excitement that I turned to the article in last week's Spectator by Timothy Raison, MP, which promised an alternative Conservative transport policy. The obvious response to Age Concern's distressing pamphlet called Your Rights would be a Central Office pamphlet called Your Opportunities, teaching these people how to
shell peas, slice runner beans, top and tail gooseberries — even, with the aid of diagrams, how to pluck and clean a chicken.
There are a thousand and one ways in which old people can make themselves useful and valued members ot society if they have a mind to it. Stuffing them with money and keeping them on the move is not the answer.
But what prospect of an alternative society does Mr Raison offer, where is his vis ion of the old sitting in quiet dignity at home
over these broad beans and, gros point tapestries while trains run freely with their
cargoes of happy, young people on wealth producing missions? First, he quotes Sir Reginald Wilson (former Chairman of the Transport Development Group) in what he describes as 'the best analysis of the fundamentals of Transport that I have ever read.' This is what Sir Reginald said: 'Birds have wings, and human beings have always aspired to a comparable freedom of movement.'
Well, yes, allowing for a little poetic licence. This is what Raison deduces from Sir Reginald's flight of fancy: 'There is still a vital need to make this mobility available to old, handicapped and young; but this is surely the direction in which we should all be pointing.'
No, no, no. Apart from the disguisting suggestion that there is any direction in
which we should all be pointing, there is absolutely no vital need of this sort. Rather the reverse. He demonstrates once again the bankruptcy of the two-party system.
Conservative and Labour now lob the same discredited ideas backwards and forwards as if the government of this country was a
friendly tennis match in an old people's home. Can't he see we have tried giving the
old people wings and teaching them to fly, and the result that is they are all utterly miserable? He should motor past Taunton post office at 9.20 on a weekday morning, when the old people are queueing outside for their social security hand-outs like dope-addicts outside an all-night chemist.
He should listen to their comments and reflect on the sort of society we will have in a few years' time when old people are in the majority. Movement is not the answer. We need an alternative vision.