Research currently being undertaken at the Open University - The Oldest Generation - gives insights into how older people live now, and their lifelong perspectives.
It is showing that many older people have ties to their local community that extend back to the early decades of the twentieth century. Many, particularly those who moved house late in life, not only keep in close day-to-day contact with members of their families, but are involved with neighbours – often of the same generation – in daily, mutually supportive, routines.
Catching a nap. [Photo posed by model - Image: Thinkstock]
Here are three recent real-life examples of older people who moved house when their children had grown up and left home:
Bill was raised in a Scottish city. When he was in his 40s, he moved to a small town nearby:
“The people here dinnea go about each other’s houses, no. But we speak over the fence and things like that and, although I have been here 35 years, I’ve no' got any close friends as neighbours, they are just neighbours you know, friendly neighbours. But most of my friends are through the bowling club.”
Bill’s daughter tells the following story in her diary:
"Dad was working in the garden when a neighbour came up the street. She stopped to chat. This lady was a widow, and lives a couple of doors down. She said she had a new boiler & invited Mum & Dad to see it. So they did.
The woman explained the only thing she needed done now was the shower & she'd have to get a new one fitted. Dad asked what was wrong with the old one & she said the shower rose was broken.
Dad said he'd one or two in his garage. He would fix it. So he went up to the garage, got the part needed and he fitted it. She was very grateful & just couldn't get over the way he'd just done it. She was insisting on paying him but Dad said if she did that he would take the shower out again."
Two days later she wrote:
"The widow lady from the house down the road came up with flowers for Mum & a bottle of whisky & a bottle of brandy. Dad was going on about not getting involved, not wanting to get involved … although he was pleased with the brandy."
Alice is a widow aged 85, living on her own in a village in the Pennines. She remembers being close to neighbours from the past:
“I had two friends in the village, yes. They’re dead now and gone, who were friends because we were at school together and they did remember school days.”
She remembers how, before she was married, one neighbour supported her when she was caring for her sick father:
“I think she and I went on holiday together for about five days and my father said it was alright, he could manage. Yes, yes, Nancy - but Nancy is no longer here.”
Alice feels differently about the community she lives in now:
“You see I go to the church and yet I don’t go to the church. I don’t belong to the church you see. I go because I like, well I don’t like the services today, but I used to like services. It did something for me, the hymn singing. But now, you see, it’s so different now."
Nevertheless, Alice goes to the Thursday group at the church because she thinks it’s ‘a lovely meeting’ and the quizzes are ‘stimulating".
Yet, she says, she and her friend ‘don’t get involved’. Alice explains this as needing to ‘keep something back, keep some privacy’.
Similarly she described how, although on ‘good terms’ with her current neighbours, they are not important to her. Despite this, in his diary, her son notes:
'Mother discussed neighbour’s garden problem – mould on surface of planters' and, the following day, 'Mother ‘lends’ neighbour pest killer for mould problem.'
In talking about her village, Alice is drawing a distinction between friendships earlier in her life that were based in shared experiences, and the less involved relationship she has with current neighbours.
Can this be explained by stages of life and issues of how to survive in old age? Friends ‘dead and gone’ cannot be replaced, but can more casual relationships with neighbours provide social support that both stimulates and includes older people?
Margaret, in her late 80s, lives with her husband in a small rural village in the north of England. They have two daughters living over 200 miles away in opposite directions. When asked about her neighbours, Margaret stated:
“Well mostly we seem to meet them when we go into [the town] to shop because they will have to do the same, you see, or when I have to do a standard walk up and down the village, when I’m doing that they will come out and have a word with me.”
Margaret says she has a very poor sense of balance and has fallen more than once in the house. When this happened, her husband sought the help of neighbours who came to pick Margaret up and sit her on the chair.
Margaret wears an alarm that can, if she needs it, raise help either from an ambulance or from her neighbours.
When families live far apart, how much can we rely on our neighbours as we grow older?
Our research suggests that, as we re-think the idea of ‘community’ and how communities might work in the future for the benefit of older people, we need to take into account the contrast between remembered and significant lifelong attachments, and the variety and value of day-to-day acts of mutual support and kindness between neighbours.