Monday 22 November 2010

Unwanted good deeds

In our society, we patronise the old and the disabled. I think this is partly guilt - because we don't really do enough for them generally - and partly because we don't know how else to deal with them and their problems.

My sister, disabled from birth and now wheelchair-bound, lives in sheltered accomodation. For Children in Need, the warden sat in a bath and invited the residents (nearly all elderly) to throw things at her. Amusing? Entertaining? No. Not really. Having got over the cringe factor, my sister gamely opened some tins of things and threw them at her, but nobody else joined in. You wouldn't do this to a group of, say, bankers, doctors, coalminers or whatever. But the disabled are fair game. At Christmas, this same establishment is visted by the mayoress, who distributes gifts of tinned food and teabags. Nobody wants or need these gifts, but (presumably) the mayoress goes away feeling all warm and fuzzy, becuase she has done a Good Deed.

And then there's my uncle, about whom I've blogged before. On his birthday, the home where he's a resident organises a cake (with candles, naturally) and crackers and paper hats, and we trog along and have a little party. This is equally cringe-making. He doesn't know how old he is, or that it's his party. He is bewildered, and thrown out of his (very limited, but safe) routine. His housekeeper, who adores him, thinks this is all lovely. But it isn't. It's awful. His 94th. birthday is in a couple of weeks, and I would ike to boycot the party and pay a separate visit instead, but that will hurt various people and make me very unpopular ("his niece never even came to see him on his birthday!"). I am his next of kin. It's expected of me. But this year, I don't think I shall go. Other people won't understand, but my uncle, when he had his wits about him, would have agreed with me.


  1. Thank you for this, Frances. I am a big believer in doing good and taking care of folks. My parents spent years running puppet shows and performing music for local veterans' hospitals and assisted living facilities, etc. Everything they did was geared exclusively off the residents' reactions. What they liked, they did more of.

    But in the course of that work, I saw so many other activities such as you describe which offended me deeply.

    Frankly, some of what I see happening really robs the individual of their humanity and turns them into (I'm just going to say it) a pet or a living doll that gives the charitable person feel-good vibes while doing nothing whatsoever for the supposed recipient of their good will.

  2. Thanks so much for that, Nevets. You have absolutely hit the nail on the head. Why can't more people see it like that?

  3. Yes. It's fundamentally a failure of empathy isn't it - a failure of the people 'doing' the 'charity' to put themselves into the place of those receiving it and to imagine what they would truly find useful, valuable etc. Maybe people don't empathise because they can't bear the thought of themselves in a similar position? If that's the case, then maybe fiction writers are in a good position to shout about this because it's our job to put ourselves into the position of others, no matter how uncomfortable.
    I'm reading an excellent book at the moment, translated from French - No and Me - which deals with the subject of teenage homelessness with a very deft and deeply empathic touch.

    Maybe all of us should think about how we can do our bit for a charity of our choice by making the voice of the voiceless heard?

  4. France, I think Alis has hit beautifully on the key: most people operate on sympathy rather than empathy, and the former without the latter is often going to misfire.

    Alis, that's a pretty powerful call to action there. Thou hast struck mine brain unto thought. Or something like that.

  5. Alis - you are so right about the empathy/sympathy thing. In fact, the sympathy borders on pity, which of course is worse. I have ideas for a novel set in an old people's home, but while I have some of the characters (they were going to be bumped off in my failed attempt at crime writing) I don't have a plot! My agent was quite keen, and thought a romance in that setting might work but I think it could be a bit twee...But one of the reasons I wanted to write about it was the whole way we treat our elderly.

    I'll look out for that book you mentioned. Have you read the Diary of Jane Somers (?spelling), by Doris Lessing? It treats the subject of old age beautifully.