Photographic Insight: Linked Lives & Elderly Care
As we age, our lives become interlinked with many people. Family, friends, acquaintances. We pick up people almost automatically when we are young. We drop them almost as instantly as we did that kebab after a night on the town. Perhaps the strongest connections and most important people remain any family we have (and get on with). There’s something to be said for the family bond. But comments from MP David Mowat suggesting that individual families should care for their elderly parents, much as they do for their children, has thrown a stark light on how the government are failing the elderly care systems in the UK. And who they expect to pick up the slack…
Perhaps by turning to artistic representations of the child/parent relationship the two photographers below show how linked lives are affected much deeper than government policy suggests.
Who is Responsible?
Linked lives are important and influence how we develop as people but there is a difference between caring/supporting loved ones and being a care provider.
When the government is failing to support care homes it can be extremely difficult for families to pick up the government’s slack for myriad reasons. Wealth plays a factor — not least for those in full-time jobs who might find it extremely difficult to provide round-the-clock care for a parent with a chronic condition. One of Mowat’s blithe and uninformed comments particularly took me by suprise. He said: “One of the things that has struck me as I’ve been doing this role is that nobody ever questions the fact that we look after our children, that’s just obvious. Nobody ever says it is a caring responsibility, it’s just what you do”.
Not only do Mowat’s words infantilise the elderly, they also do not take into consideration the transition of care. Is he suggesting the parent who cared for the infant is now the adult who requires that child to “pay back” in kind?
Age UK’s analysis shows there are now nearly 1.2 million people aged 65+ who don’t receive the care support they need with essential daily living activities
The Guardian’s ‘New Retirement’ series offers many insights into how the growing ageing population is changing and perhaps their most poignant piece is on the 60 and 70-something carers. This part suggests that those in their 60s and 70s not only often have to care for an even-more elderly parent but that they are also depended on for childcare too. This ‘sandwich generation’ is left without time to grasp their own ageing process, and they are expected to work longer and save more in their old age in light of fears that the State Pension age will be pushed up due to Brexit.
It is perhaps the ‘linked life’ factor that suggests to me that it would be more difficult for children to take care of parents. In Michelle A. Miller-Day’s study on maternal relationships, she suggests one way of reading the interconnected relationships is the “powerful-powerless dialectic” between female familial bonding, describing these relationships as “enmeshed” .
Adding to this element of ‘enmeshment’, it is interesting that the daughter/parent relationships are explored artistically (below). These two photo series also speaks to the assumption of women as unpaid care providers. Overall, women are more likely to take on caring roles than men. Carers UK reported that 1 in 4 women aged 50–64 has caring responsibilities for older or disabled loved ones, and women are also more likely to be ‘sandwich’ carers — caring for young children and elderly parents at the same time.
Mother/Daughter: Daily Moments
A visual representation of how family relationships are ‘enmeshed’ comes in the form of James Tolich’s Mary and Nigre series. He describes it as a “simple glimpse into the daily life of Mary and Nigre, a mother and daughter living in Hillsborough, Auckland”. The day to day realities of ageing women living together are poignant but also powerful. In a shot of both women Mary looks away but Nigre starts pointedly into the camera.
Other shots include a snapshot of domestic life. A crumpled bed. Nigre washing pots. Mary drinking tea. A bowl of ripe lemons sits in bright juxtaposition to the beiges and creams of the décor. It is hard to ignore the younger woman’s expression, slightly hardened and challenging the camera.
In Tolich’s photographs it is perhaps the chores that remind us of the everydayness of ageing between four walls. Mary and Nigre’s lives are irrevocably linked — and the younger woman takes on most of the labour.
Care Captured on Camera
Another photography project that captures how linked lives might affect how care is administered comes from Lydia Goldblatt whose photo-documentary series Still Here charts her father’s late-life dementia. Unlike Tolich’s snapshot into daily life, here abstract shots sit next to stark representations of the realities of coping — both for the patient and the family.
These photos represent a chance to capture a father and bring him back to the present. They also hint at a difficult reality that is not discussed by the government when it comes public discourses on our ageing population. As Goldblatt told Creative Review: “There was a point that I was very aware he was sort of slipping. You watch someone being fully present and then being somewhere else, and it’s fascinating and beautiful and strange and difficult”.
The day-to-day nature of ageing again plays a part but unlike Tolich’s ‘day in the life’ approach here we get a sense of daily life on repeat. Her work grasps at the liminal spaces of coping with cognitive changes in a parent you once knew so well. She returns to her childhood home, capturing her mother caressing curtains as the light streams behind them. The work with light and shade speaks to the extremely difficult feelings that occur when caring for an elderly relative: guilt and love, understanding and misunderstanding. Goldblatt shows she cares through her photography, leaving a legacy of family bonds.
As we age and become children with elderly parents we see how new boundaries are drawn and new understandings emerge — both good and bad. Age UK’s recent statement on the state of social care concluded: “we are living on borrowed time in saving social care for older people from complete collapse”.
Caring is a fundamental social good but without strong support and funding from Parliament things are only going to get worse. Expecting individual families to support family members is a sticking plaster, not a solution and it is through photography that we are lent an insight into the daily actualities of living with an ageing or ill parent.