The vulnerable age

This week’s SUR in English contains at least two articles that make us stop and think of the most senior members of our communities and families. In her second Brit Back column, in which she recounts the ups and downs of her rediscovery of the UK after years of living in Spain, Polly Rodger Brown points out how fractured British society seems.

The community spirit and family atmosphere that we are familiar with in this country seems to have faded away in Britain, save the odd royal jubilee tea party. Now the elderly are put together in front of the telly in “homes”, teenagers hide out as far away from their parents as possible, children are sent to specially organised activities and then put to bed at the earliest possible opportunity so that adults can go and do grown-up stuff undisturbed.

We’ve noticed over the years how Spain is gradually going down the same route as other more “advanced” countries. It has adopted more global customs and attitudes, good and bad, later than others, basically held back by a 40-year dictatorship rather than a conscious effort to protect its own traditions.

So, by coincidence rather than editorial coordination, in the same issue as Polly’s reminiscence about family values in Spain, we have a warning of the many invisible cases of what has become known as “elder abuse” (a term that appears, incidentally, to have been coined in the UK).

Public prosecutors in the province of Malaga have called for members of the local community to help detect cases of vulnerable elderly relatives suffering physical or emotional violence, neglect or theft at the hands of, in the majority of cases, their own children.

Also in this edition we learn of a police inquiry into three adults who lived with the body of the mother of two of them in a Malaga apartment for a month.

However most of these cases have, as the authorities point out, aggravating circumstances, such as mental illness or addictions. Polly will be relieved to hear that the community spirit she misses can still be felt here.

The families that she remembers don’t have to arrange to “do” things together, they simply “are” together. If they feel like going out for dinner, there’s no discussion over who is going and who will stay at home to look after the children - everyone goes, young and old.

Of course it’s very easy to generalise and it takes all sorts to make a community. We’ve all heard of cases of siblings, both here and there, who haven’t spoken to each other for years. We also know of families who, while they always do things together, spend most of the time in heated argument and would be better off going out separately.

Whatever the circumstances, the elderly members of the family are often the most vulnerable and their quality of life depends on the availability and willingness of their families and carers.

Next time you see a big family group with three or even four generations in a restaurant, take a closer look at the older members. They might have children climbing all over them, and others shouting over their heads, but that look of quiet satisfaction on their faces, shows how content they are just being part of family life. I’m confident Polly will also find that same look of contentment on the faces of the elderly in her community, but perhaps indoors, out of the British rain.