Keep Calm, Sure It’s Grand

Granny Freda, as photographed by my 3 year old son.

Last month, my 92 year old Irish grandmother moved from her assisted living  facility in Douglas, the town where she lived her entire life, to a nursing home in Kinsale.

In her apartment, she was surrounded by a lively group of neighbors, family photos, and her own furniture. There was a bottle of gin in the cupboard, ice cream in the freezer, and she always kept a window cracked. She had a glass ashtray on the side table, and she could smoke as often and as much as she pleased.

In the nursing home, she can only smoke outside. “Oh, everything is grand. Nothing has changed,” she told me over the phone last week, always the optimist. “The food is grand,” she assured me, “they never stop feeding you.”

I was lucky enough to get to know my grandmother last year when I spent a couple months in the motherland.  I had only met her twice before then. Granny Freda, as she’s known, is an incredible lady with a fantastic memory, lots of energy, a sense of humor and a deep appreciation for good food. She also plays a mean game of gin rummy.

My two aunts have taken care of Granny for years now, preparing her meals, visiting, taking her to doctor’s appointments, and to Marks and Spencer , things that made it possible for her to live on her own for so long.

If there was ever a health issue that brings up issues of gender, it’s aging.

According to one survey, the gender disparities are stark: about  70% of people ages 75 and older older who need assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs) are women. The people who provide this assistance are inevitably also women: up to three-quarters of family caregivers are female.

Men do help out, but female caregivers are more likely than men to cut back on work hours or quit their jobs because of their care-giving duties and are then left with less income, small savings, and reduced pensions. In the US, the value of women’s unpaid caregiving of elders has been estimated at as high as  $188 billion a year. If elder care is outsourced to paid caregivers, the gender dynamic becomes even more stark. Most nurses and home health aides are female, and many are even as old as their clients.

We don’t like to think about aging in this society, particularly about aging women. But as the baby boomers round the corner into old age, it’s something that requires some serious reflection. Especially for women.

  • What kind of public policy might help women who take care of aging relatives?
  • According to one survey, most LGBT older adults predicted that staff would discriminate, isolate and/or abuse and neglect an LGBT elder that was out of the closet. How can gay and lesbian elderly folks be made to feel safer if they are required to enter nursing homes?
  • If they’re so inclined, should people in nursing homes be allowed to have sex?
  • How can families make sure their loved ones who live in nursing homes are safe?

What do you think? Do you have experience looking after an elderly family member? Have you thought about the possibility in the future? Is it your experience that women do more of the care-taking? Have you had positive or negative experiences with relatives in nursing homes?

Let me know!


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