August, and a lot of us spend a week or two in a faraway place and dream of moving away altogether; we look at the sea through the trees and wonder why we settle for a view that comprises the back of someone else’s house in the rain. I don’t need to tell you that such uprootings may or may not work – places that seem great for a short time can turn out to be full of snags and smells and difficulties we never spotted on holiday.
Maybe there’s a third option between a complete change of life or simply staying put. In February’s Dilemmas I advised a woman to stop trying to dissuade a friend from taking a job with Voluntary Service Overseas and give her friend her blessing instead. Now I’ve had a letter from Anne Thomson, who not only volunteered successfully in Zambia, but wrote a book about it called Wash My Bikini – that being the way she remembered how to say Mwashibukeni, which means good morning in Bemba, the local language. What I had not realised, until a friend of mine took off to do management training in Bangladesh, is that VSO can use a vast range of skills. I suppose the image of teaching or digging wells is ingrained, but that’s less than half the story.
Volunteering isn’t the only way of spending time away. Parents may uproot themselves to follow grown children who live abroad, but there’s a fair bit of evidence that this has real snags to it. The young may well move on to a different posting in time, or in any case have precious little time to help their parents settle in – and the parents often come to regret that they ever abandoned the friends and occupations they had before. But visiting for a month or two – longer than a holiday, shorter than emigrating – may be just the tonic that’s needed to make one feel really glad to be home.
Q: I have a helper who comes two or three times a month to assist with things I can’t manage: garden stuff, heavy things needing to be moved, spring cleaning, etc. She is very hard up and I pay her a proper wage. The trouble is that although she’s not that much younger than me, she treats me as if I’m an old fool; if I talked to her the way she talks to me, she’d never come back. I could manage without her or get someone else, but she really needs the money I pay her. One of these days I’m going to blow up and tell her to go, but in the meantime I dread her visits.
A: I know how you feel: a lot of us oldies are treated as if we’re senile, though maybe people would be more polite, or at least kinder, if they thought we actually were. There’s no reason you should put up with this indefinitely, but before you pluck up the courage to fire her, you should give her a chance to be more considerate.
Is there anyone else – perhaps a neighbour or someone known to both of you – who could talk to her? It’s quite possible she doesn’t know how maddening she is being; it would be fair to see if you could improve the situation before you do anything final.
Q: My husband has always snored a bit when he has a cold, but as he’s got older it’s got worse. We’ve tried one or two of the cures but nothing seems to make any difference – the snores always come back. Our daughter has just left home and I very much want to move into her room, but my husband is dead against it. Anyone would think I was moving to Australia! But I think I have the right to a decent night’s sleep.
A: This is a perennial problem, and there’s an old saying that separate beds make separate rooms make separate lives. What your husband is afraid of, I think, is not just less sex but less ordinary loving warmth; the feeling that you’re there, beside him, for the sort of unspoken comfort that we all crave.
If you can get him to try it – perhaps as an experiment, perhaps when he’s got a cold that you can insist on not catching – you might be able to prove you can provide enough warmth at other times.
And as for lovemaking, you could even suggest that getting into Your Bedroom might provide an extra thrill. In the Paul Bowles novel The Sheltering Sky, someone asks a travelling couple why they always book separate hotel rooms; the wife replies that the first rule of marriage is not to confuse sex with sleep. It’s not bad advice.
Q: Articles about retirement always seem to assume that people have grandchildren and good health, possibly partners or spouses. But we never had children, I gave up my job to look after my husband in his last illness and we moved back to Scotland where he came from. I thought I had done all the right things: I joined the University of the Third Age (U3A), had a voluntary job, took up yoga and I travel as much as I can – often back to America, which is where I come from. But in spite of this I feel rather depressed, largely I suspect because I hate living alone! Would counselling be a good idea?
A: It wouldn’t hurt, but I think you’ve hit the spot in saying you hate being on your own. We assume it should be OK, if there’s enough going on, but with the best will in the world we can’t be active all the time. As the great Felicity Green (now OBE) of the Daily Mirror said when she was widowed: ‘I’ve plenty of people to do things with, but no one to do nothing with’.
I think you should consider sharing your house with someone – and I don’t mean occasional visitors, who are great but also temporary and exhausting. There is a scheme called Homeshare, which matches people needing somewhere to live with an older person who could do with someone around the place, though it is still fairly limited (for details, see sharedlivesplus.org.uk or call 0151 227 3499). Virginia Ironside, agony aunt of The Independent, swears by her lodgers; as you’re American, you might offer to take in students from the US eager for the British experience. Even if you don’t find someone at once, the search will give you another interest too.
Q: I am retired and live on my pension. I am not mean, but I have to watch what I spend. I know I am lucky to have several friends nearby whom I see often, but what annoys me is that people nowadays seem to expect you to turn up with a present – chocolate or flowers or a bottle. I don’t know why this has happened, but it’s hard on us oldies on tight budgets.
A: It’s an import from the Continent or perhaps from America; British social habits have generally tended to come down from the aristocracy, who certainly didn’t turn up to each other’s banquets carrying a small pot of African violets. I agree it can be tiresome but there are ways of outwitting it – other than simply passing on the last thing anyone brought to you.
People who make jam or grow things in pots often take something like that rather than buying anything. And you might try making a pact: I’ve done this with the three people I see most often – we’ve agreed we will not bring each other anything except on birthdays.