My husband is British and his grandfather passed away last week. I’d like to tell the life story of that ordinary old Englishman and talk about retirement in England in the meantime.
Grandpa was born in 1926, one month older than Queen Elizabeth. As a boy from a commoner family in a small town in the south of England, few people went to university in those days. After secondary school, he joined a mechanic’s shop as an apprentice, learning to repair locomotives. One day when he was 17, a girl came into the shop pushing a bicycle with a broken chain, and Grandpa helped her fix it. The shy grandfather did not say anything to the girl at that time, but later asked his colleagues whose girl it was. A few days later Grandpa went to work and received a letter from the girl. The letter said bluntly: ‘I heard you were asking about me, what do you want to know? Why don’t you just come and ask me? Here’s my phone number.’
However, before he had a chance to ask the girl a few questions, as soon as Grandpa turned 18 a few months later, he was summoned by the World War II draft office and sent to the battlefields of North Africa. Luckily, the campaign in North Africa was over by then, and Grandpa’s job, was to do military machinery maintenance for the British Army stationed at the Suez Canal. According to him, the soldiers were not busy at that time, and every weekend the barracks would show movies, and he went to see every single one of them, and became a movie fan. On holidays, the young soldiers would go together to see the pyramids and visit the Nile. Grandpa saw a place so different from England that the seed of curiosity to see the world was planted in his heart. He also kept in touch with the bicycle girl by letter: as you probably guessed later, when the military service ended and Grandpa returned to his hometown, the bicycle girl became Grandma.
For decades afterwards, they raised their three children together, living a quiet and cozy middle-class family life in the standard British style of that era. Grandmother died of cancer in her sixties. It is said that after she knew she was going to die soon, Grandma wrote down all the details of the family’s daily affairs in a notebook for Grandpa: she had been taking care of all the family’s internal affairs for so many years, and she was worried that Grandpa would not be able to find anything or take care of himself after she was gone.
It took a long time for Grandpa to recover from his pain after Grandma’s death. But on the other hand, he also found a new freedom: Grandpa had actually always wanted to go out and see the world, but previously there were few opportunities to travel because he had been busy for many years and because Grandma didn’t like to travel. After his grandmother’s death, Grandpa started to travel around the world. He was quite old by then, and often joined Saga, a British travel company that caters to the elderly, with slower paced trips, escorted trips, and many cruise itineraries. Grandpa traveled every year, sometimes on cruises, sometimes on tourist trains, and traveled through many countries on five continents. Until he was 90 years old, he still pulled his own suitcase to go on cruises and would also take the train to London to visit his daughter’s family. Older British people are very independent and hardly ever live with their children, so Grandpa lived alone all the time. Grandpa lived alone all the time. We, the younger generation, usually just went to dinner a few times a year on his birthday and Christmas. He had a life of his own and did not rely on the next generation to retire.
As one of the first welfare states in the world, and one of the first to enter the aging age, the UK has a relatively mature and thoughtful system of assistance for the elderly. For example, if Grandpa leaves from a small town to London for a tour group trip, the train station where he leaves will call ahead to tell the station where he arrives: when the old man will arrive and what his seat number is. The London train station where he arrived would arrange for someone to meet him and accompany him on the transfer or help him with his luggage to ease the confusion of the trip and the unfamiliar place. The town’s community has a weekly seniors’ club that meets for tea and can take care of transportation, so even seniors with mobility issues can go and chat and meet friends when they have time. There are also meals on wheels, a community-delivered mobile canteen service that relieves seniors of the burden of household chores and is basically cost effective.
Many elderly people do not like to go to nursing homes, and when they reach a certain age and state of health, it is common for them to wear a first-aid alarm ring if they live alone. Grandpa also signed up for this alarm ring when he was in his eighties. This is somewhat similar to taking out an insurance policy with an insurance company and paying a monthly service fee for a certain amount of money, and the alarm ring company provides 24-hour uninterrupted electronic monitoring. Depending on the person’s living environment and community ties, the wearer reports having the most convenient contact at the company, and can also be connected to the community or police system. As the saying goes, a distant relative is better than a close neighbor, and many of the contacts can be familiar neighbors to host spare keys in case of an emergency. For example, if an elderly person falls down alone at home and the phone is not at hand, press the alarm ring and the company’s electronic system will directly notify the nearest guardian to check on him. Another example is an elderly person who is out and lost, some companies have bracelet systems that assist in locating and alarming to help find him. Some of the more advanced alarms will automatically sense when an elderly person falls, such as a sudden myocardial infarction, for example, for an automatic alarm. For many elderly people who are not familiar with modern technology and will not always have a cell phone, this alarm system is very easy to use and enhances the safety of living alone.
When the new epidemic started in March last year in the UK, senior citizens like Grandpa belonged to a special protection group and he basically stopped going out and his friends and relatives were not allowed to visit him regularly. When the ban was imposed, the community care manager came over and filled out a form with Grandpa, and a few hours later, two large bags were delivered to his home – containing a week’s supply of everything from toothpaste and shampoo to toilet paper to cereal and milk and orange juice to macaroni and canned fish to tea and sugar and cookies and chocolate. During those months of grounding, the community made weekly deliveries – this was not a nationwide support, perhaps because Grandpa was a very old man, perhaps because of his background as a World War II veteran, but in any case, the community helped him and his family during those months.
When the ban ended and the vaccine became available, Grandpa was one of the first people to get the vaccine. He was 94 years old and getting weaker by then, but he didn’t want to leave his familiar home to live in a nursing home, so he chose the in-home care service. The service, which also pays a nursing home fee, offers four visits per day: three or four caregivers are usually partnered in shifts to cooperate in caring for multiple elderly people within close proximity. The first visit each morning is to help Grandpa get up and freshen up for breakfast and see if he has any special needs that day. The second visit is for lunch, which is brief; the third is for dinner, and the caregiver is said to watch TV with Grandpa for a while; and the last is to help him wash up and go to bed. Each visit lasted about half an hour and served the purpose of addressing daily needs and checking the safety of the elderly. Grandpa, as an average senior, could afford to pay for this based on his previous income and pension.
Grandpa passed away last week, having celebrated his 95th birthday just a few months ago. The morning before he passed away, he was having tea and jokes with friends at the community’s senior club. The social worker took him home and when he got out of the car, he seemed to be asleep and did not respond to calls. So an ambulance was immediately called and he was resuscitated to the hospital, where doctors suspected a mini-myocardial infarction. However, at this age, a person is like an aging machine, a small part malfunctioned and soon caused multiple organ failure. The doctor said that this condition could be alive with machine assistance, but the quality of life was just too poor. In the end, the hospital helped Grandpa to relieve his pain and discomfort, provided hospice care, and let him go peacefully and naturally.
Grandpa’s life was filled with a beautiful family, good health, and a glimpse of the big world. Although he was lonely during the epidemic, he had a very good caregiver to help him with his life and he did not suffer much when he left. He was a happy old man, may he rest in peace.