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The age of matriarchs

24 March 2017

To mark Mothering Sunday, Pat Ashworth explores some of the challenges associated with ageing mothers

Trinity Mirror/Alamy

Royal matriarchs: Queen Elizabeth II with Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on the latter’s 101st birthday

Royal matriarchs: Queen Elizabeth II with Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on the latter’s 101st birthday

THE Queen’s 90th birthday last year led to much interested reflection on the new preponderance of elderly matriarchs in our society. Statistics show that, although such a great age is no longer so remarkable, older women still outnumber men of the same age: the ratio is falling, but in 2014 there were 230 women to every 100 men aged between 90 and 94.

Such extended lives bring a new and largely untested dimension to the mother-daughter relationship, especially as many daughters have found themselves playing the unex­pected and sometimes unwelcome part of carer. It is proving to be fertile ground for writers. Eleanor Stewart’s book A Voyage Round My Mother (Books, 27 January) high­lights many of the complexities of trying to understand — and, in some cases, forgive — a generation of women whose lives, attitudes, and experiences were so different from those of the present day.


STEWART was her mother’s primary carer for eight years, and found her difficult and self-obsessed in old age. Old frictions were resurrected; new frustrations emerged. Her mother’s generation tended to be briskly dismissive of the past, and reluctant to talk about it; how healing it would be, Stewart felt, if she could only understand her mother better while she was still alive.

Her mother’s decision to make a series of tape recordings about her life came out of the blue. They revealed her to have been a survivor, in 1941, of the shelling and sinking of the Calcutta-bound SS Britannia. Months of voyaging followed four days adrift in a lifeboat, and a sub­sequent rescue by the Navy. The recordings also told of a shipboard romance for the woman who had warned her teenage daughter against sex outside marriage; and revealed the mental illness that had led to the break-up of her parents’ marriage.

Knowing all this brought illu­mina­tion, the settlement of guilt, and the building of bridges. “I still thought her difficult and self-obsessed, but her undoubted cour­age and resilience added another dimension. She must have felt in later life that her world had be­­come very unsafe,” Stewart con­­cludes.


THE desire to forge a new relationship with her elderly mother led the American writer Jane Christmas to embark with her on a six-week car journey through Italy and Sicily, where she hoped that “the conversations I have always wanted to have with my mother would bubble up and help to ease, if not resolve, decades of discontent”.

Her father’s death, in 1999, had left both without their mediator and buffer, leaving them “to soldier on through the minefield of our rela­tion­ship as best we could. We main­tained an awkward truce while march­ing to the beat of older drums.”

Christmas’s book Incontinent on the Continent: My mother, her walker and our grand tour of Italy is witty, profound, and devastatingly honest about the trials of old age. Her mother’s cheerful insistence — characteristic of her generation — that she was “perfectly healthy” and “capable of doing anything” proved to be a serious over-estimate. She had misrepresented her disabilities (even, it later emerged, her age), and it became clear that she could not do anything without help.

“In the planning stages of our trip, I had fantasied about Mom and me lounging poolside in our swim­suits on the sun-soaked patio of our trullio, sipping wine and amiably chatting about our dys­­functional relationship,” she writes.

“We would raise a thorny subject, discuss it with nonchalance, and then laugh hysterically at the folly of our past foolishness. With a clink of our wineglasses, we would bury the hatchet, take another sip and stare dreamily into the distance as the toll of the church bell and the light rustle of olive leaves provided a soothing soundtrack. . .”


AS THE nightmare trip progressed, and her mother’s limitations be­­came increasingly evident, Christ­­­­mas realised that she herself had ignored for years the signs of her mother’s ageing.

“Even when she had had hip surgery and knee replacement, I had considered them merely tune-ups to return her to full mobility,” she reflects with new insight. “It had never occurred to me that her con­­dition would worsen. Now with clarity and shock, I saw her frailty, and her stoic determination to main­tain her independence and spirits while coping with a debili­tat­ing disability.”

There is guilt, resentment, and impatience: as she watches her mother persevere in shuffling across the road with her walker, she prays silently, in mock irony, “Dear God. Please shoot me before I reach this stage of life.”

But, at the end of the trip, she reaches the conclusion that elderly people cling to hope: “It is their last resource and their prime motivator. Making plans, voicing possibilities, launching ideas is what keeps them — all of us when you think about it — feeling vital and in the game. When you are held hostage by your body’s limitations, hope is all you have.”

More appreciative now of what her mother had daily to struggle with, she acknowledges, “I am hyper­­­­­aware of signs of her regres­sion, and I am also forgiving of them. The best I can do for my mother is, well, mother her. It is still a learning process for me, but better late than never. As they say.

“Years ago, when she and I fought bitterly, I thought the only thing that could bring her down was a silver bullet and a wooden stake. Now I see that it will take much less. The thought of her dying makes me gasp for air. I love her. . .”

At her mother’s funeral, a family friend said to Christmas, “She was so proud of you. It is sad that she could never bring herself to tell you this to your face.”


FRIENDS with very elderly mothers — some in their late nineties — report mixed experiences. Much depends on the state of health, and it is hardest for those whose mothers have dementia, or who have had the responsibility and angst of finding a care home, some­­times in the face of accusation and recrimination.

But pluses have been many, too: cited most of all are unprecedented family gatherings, with great-grand­children as well as grandchildren present for joyful celebrations. Tell­ing life stories is now not just wel­comed, but actively encouraged; intergenerational activities help all ages to understand each other better, and elderly mothers acquire both status and respect.

Where the relationship between mother and daughter was always good, it clearly continues to flour­ish. Joy Hales’s mother is 92. She mar­ried at 20, and had four chil­dren, of whom Joy, a magazine editor in Derby, is the youngest.

When her husband came back from the war, his only desire was for a family life, and so, like many of her generation, Joy’s mother never work­ed outside the home. He died at 62, when she was 54; so she has been a widow for almost 40 years. Until he died she had never used a cheque book, or managed money.

Fiercely independent, she has a house on the same avenue and just around the corner from her daughter. “She’d say that having me near is probably the most important factor in staying in her own house and keeping her alert and every­thing — the fact that I go so much, and am talking about what I’m doing is good,” Joy says.

“Today, she’s caught the bus to Tesco, and done some shopping in the village, and she walked round to the post office the other day. If it’s a good day, she’ll be out gardening, though she has someone to come in and do the heavy work.”


THIS is a strong breed, Joy reflects: the offspring of no-nonsense par­ents, who had to be seriously ill be­­fore they were ever permitted to have a day off school. “She’s had rheumatism for years; so she’s totally careful about what she eats, because she knows it will be harder to walk if she puts on much weight.

“She’s used to being in some pain; so she struggles on, regardless. I’ve never, ever known her — even when she has been really ill — not to get up and get dressed and sit in the kitchen.”

When Joy calls in on the way to work, her mother is generally doing just that: sitting at the kitchen table with a yogurt in front of her. When she drops in on the way back from work, it’s generally to sit down to some soup her mother has made, or a meal she has cooked, and the two share the washing-up. Joy deliber­ately has no television: it is a good incentive, she says, to go round and watch it together.

Her mother’s independence is deliberate: a fear, Joy suggests, of someone else having control over her life. She reflects: “I could never imagine going up to Mum and say­ing, ‘We’ve had a family meeting, and we’ve decided you’re not capable of living on your own; so we’re going to put you into a home.’ I wouldn’t ever let that happen, because I know she would be thoroughly miserable. I’d find another way.”

Her mother will talk of “old people” while not at all regarding herself as in that category. “She doesn’t want to be treated as though she is ancient, and, though I make sure I’m careful with her, and respect her independence and dignity, I don’t treat her as different in any way. We don’t feel our own age; so why should it be any different for her? I think sometimes people can be very condescending, and that can be aggravating.”

Her mother’s hairdresser — whom she has had for 40 years — visits weekly; she buys make-up, and “slaps on the body lotion every night. I imagine I’ll be a bit like that as well,” Joy suggests.“I just wish that I hadn’t had to go to work, and had the free time to do more things together. That’s the only regret. But she decided years ago that, if she was asked whether she would like to go to the theatre, or would she like to go on holiday, the answer would al­­ways be ‘Yes.’ That way, there would be no regrets.”


AS PEOPLE live longer, there is a growing industry that is geared to making sure that having no regrets becomes a reality.

Take travel, for example: the dream of bonding with your elderly mother can stay alive (and the perils of Incontinent on the Continent avoided) with a wealth of advice on travelling with an aged parent. There are Age UK, and Silver Travel Service; the travel association, ABTA; websites such as Age Space, dedicated to holiday-planning with aged parents; and blogs from people who have lived to tell the triumphant tale.

It is encapsulated here in some advice from the blogger Val Grubb, whose writing is dedicated to travels with ageing parents. Another Amer­ican (they tackle this issue with de­­ter­mination), since her father died in 2005 she has taken her octogen­arian mother to places as adventur­ous as Cambodia.

She chooses cities that can be easily navigated; researches the condition of pavements; checks out organisations that help find taxis; hires drivers if there is “dicey public transportation”; hires a wheelchair at all hotels; has a strict rule of relaxation for her mother after every round of sightseeing — “and I don’t try and do three cities in a week: stay in Rome for the whole time”; hand-carries her mother’s prescrip­tions in their original bottles and writes down, in the local language, her medical condition; carries a folding stick and a folding stool; and always has a plentiful supply of energy bars, almonds, and water.

Do it, she says. “Planes, trains, and wheelchairs — that’s my life in a nutshell. A couple of years ago, I decided to show my mom the world, one airport ramp at a time. And, with over 300,000 miles tra­velled together, I’m thrilled to say that we’ve tackled every hurdle thrown our way, including the 32-­hour flight to Australia.”

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