23 September 2021
A good friend of mine wrote to me the other day. “Have you noticed,” he asked, “that you have less REAL friends the older you get?”
In my reply, I said the following. “Oh dear yes, and triply so since Covid set in. I have a few remaining friends who correspond regularly on e-mail, a couple of friends who talk regularly on the phone, and the rest, in spite of all the Covid-19 promises of TLC for the aging, have been AWOL for the best part of two years. Mind you, I have kept myself to myself. In fact, I have become rather anti-social in face to face / mask to mask situations!”
This question-asking friend, now lives in another province, in a care home for the ageing. Over the ages, such homes have had many names. In South Wales they were called the Workhouse, and that’s where the broken old men from the mines and the industrial smelters ended up. Places of shame. Places to be feared. Then we had Old Folks Homes. Some were called Sanctuaries. Others are now called Hospices or Care Homes and the Hospitals themselves have been forced to take on the task of looking after our old and frail senior citizens. Some of our seniors were lucky, fell into good homes, and were blessed. Others were cursed, poor things, fell into hopeless surroundings, and lost all hope. As for the homes themselves, some were run by religious groups, others by charities, a few by the state or local health authorities. Some were non-profit, others, well, we are having a debate, here in Canada, about some of the more unscrupulous and unhealthy care homes that are run for healthy profits right now.
And that debate was caused by Covid-19. Under-paid employees, working several care homes, not just one, travelling from home to home, and the pandemic entering those homes and settling in there, causing immense suffering, damage, and death. I look on this as CCD. Originally, the initials spelled out Colony Collapse Disorder, the death moth that entered the bee-hives and caused their buzzing to end in silence. Now, for me, they stand for Covid Collateral Damage. And that form of CCD is everywhere.
You can see it in families that are breaking up. One partner loses their job, their self-respect, and goes out looking elsewhere for comfort and for pastures green. Another is forced into excessive overtime because other members of their team, now working from home, all of them, cannot cope with home-schooling, house-work, partner, and children present all day long. They break down under the stress, can function no longer, and society starts to fall apart.
Mind you, it has been falling apart for years. When I lived in Spain, I was adopted by a family in Santander who owned and lived in a huge house. The grand-mother was the matriarch and she shared the house with three siblings, two unmarried, and one divorced. The parents lived there, on and off, as they had jobs elsewhere. A country cousin, same age as the grand-parents’ generation, also lived there and did the cooking and cleaning. And the grand-children settled in there too, during term time. When the family gathered for the Sunday meal, there were 22-24 of us around that dining-room table. In such a large family setting, there were baby-sitters at hand, somebody was always employed, somebody always knew the solution to a problem, or could find one pretty quickly.
When we lived in Swansea, two sets of grand-parents were close, as were aunties, uncles, cousins, and a network of friendly faces, all of whom gathered round in an emergency. But, bit by bit, that family disintegrated. Some went to London, others to Bristol, a few to Birmingham, we moved to Cardiff. In Cardiff we went from a family network to a nuclear family, consisting of my mother, my father, and I. Both my parents worked and I was at a boarding-school, term-time, but a latch-key kid during school holidays, cooking for myself, looking after the house, waiting for my parents to come home. When I, in my turn, left for Canada, my parents were left as a family of two, then, when my mother died, a family of one. Of course, there were Social Services. Social Workers visited every so often, but the gaps got longer, the loneliness grew, and a terrible isolation took over every aspect of my father’s life. When I flew back from Canada to Wales to visit him in Wales one year, I found no food in the house, my father totally uncared for, unwanted and, by this stage, unwilling to cooperate. he wanted to stay in his home. He wouldn’t move. In truth, he had become a miserable old man who wouldn’t change, wouldn’t accept help, and could no longer look after himself.
On the anniversary of my mother’s death, I called him from Canada. He did not pick up the phone. I called his brother, who lived in another town some forty miles away. He’s like that now came my uncle’s reply. He’s fine. Don’t worry. But worry I did. Three days later, his brother called me back. My father had suffered a heart attack and a stroke on the anniversary of my mother’s death. He had lain on the bedroom door for three days, no food, no water, no visitors, until his brother had finally got worried and decided to come round and see what was happening.
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” We all know that phrase. Unfortunately, many are not that tough. They get going all right: they go right out through the door and vanish into the sunset. So, my thoughts for today: what exactly is a friend, what do friends actually do, what is a fair-weather-friend, what are friends for, how many real friends do we really have, and yes, the question that started me on this rant, do real friends diminish in number as we grow older?
As my grand-mother told me, a long, long time ago, in the warmth of her Welsh kitchen: “Roger, a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Luckily, I still I have some real friends who are there when I need them. Thank you, real friends. You know who you are and I am very grateful to you. Covid-19 and CCD have not been easy.