Are we ready to change how we care and how we die?

Helen Walker

I went to a funeral a couple of weeks ago to support a friend whose father had died – always a sad experience, and more so as it’s the first I’ve attended since I lost my own dad nearly two years ago. There was a whole pew of friends there and afterwards over a drink in the rather quaint hotel frozen in the 1970s that hosted the wake I started reflecting on who would arrange and attend our funerals.

It struck me that only one of us in that pew had children – and our job as we reach middle age is increasingly to care for our parents and to be there to help organise a funeral and support the parent left. But our population is changing. It is ageing rapidly and many people are choosing a different lifestyle:  single, straight, gay, married, childless, divorced, living together – the structure of our society is very different to how it used to be but are we ready to change how we care and how we die? 

A combination of Father’s day and Carers’ Week made me muse further about how we should start thinking not just about how the NHS will cope or whether any of us will be eligible for a State Pension when we retire – but how society will cope with this change as we all age. Isn’t this the ultimate ‘early intervention’ agenda item: who cares for those who have no one to care for them when there is little chance, economically, of the State being there? Because the number of people without family or friends to step up and care is only going to increase.

For example, assuming I power through to old age will it be my equally ageing friends i.e. my life long support network who organise my funeral or a distant relative who rocks up out of the blue in the hope I’ve left to them what the Government hasn’t taken in dementia tax? A person therefore who doesn’t know my views on people wearing black and making sure there’s plenty to drink afterwards?!

So is this a new place for volunteers to step in? Will the face of volunteering adjust to support our changing population? Will we have a new role for the volunteer, not just as a befriender combatting loneliness but slowly stepping in to the role of ‘traditional family support’?  At TimeBank we talk a lot about putting volunteers into places previously the preserve of the professional – not replacing but complementing their roles.

Here though they might be needed to replace the familiar family support, not just in the caring role, but in those very challenging areas that as a child you dread mentioning to a parent however grown up you are: ‘what about power of attorney’, ‘what hymns do you want at your funeral’, ‘cremation or burial’?  It’s never easy to bring up these questions with a loved one – would it be any easier for a volunteer, one step emotionally removed to do so? And is it a role that anyone would want to take on? Is it one we need to start to develop to accommodate our changing society?

We talk in the charity sector about joined up thinking, we talk about the importance of learning from our failures in early intervention for mental health, integration, homelessness and all the other contemporary challenges in our society that we have allowed to become problems rather than intervene first – simply because funding comes in silos and solutions would cross budget responsibility. I think we need to start to consider right now our changing society and what the ‘ageing population’ that we bandy around really means to us on a practical, volunteering, societal and human level, not just in terms of our economy.  

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