It is said that once a mother, you are always a mother. However old your son or daughter may be, they are always your children. This may be right, but it is a blessing and a curse. Most of us cannot escape it.

The Nature of Motherhood

This realisation came home to me a week or so ago when I passed a restless night, even waking at one point in a clear state of panic.

I don’t know what I was dreaming, but it was probably one of those dreams where you can’t get to where you want to go. All I know is that I was visibly shaken, and it took awhile to settle back down.

I knew immediately that I was worried for my son. But why? Was he a new-born, and was I a new mother who knows absolutely nothing and worries about every little thing? Nope.

Had he just started nursery school, when you worry about whether they will manage without you for the first time? No, not that either.

Was he at the end of secondary school, when you worry about whether they will get into the college or apprenticeship of their choice? Wrong, again.

No, I was worried about an interview he was having the following day for a job that would make his life very much easier (due to its location) and set him on a good ladder for his professional career. He is not new-born, nor age three or even age 18.

He is, indeed, in his late 30s, married, a father himself, and completely independent. He doesn’t need my worry at all.


Are you more easy-going than this – or do you worry, like me, in such circumstances? Do you feel it deeply when your no-longer-young children pass through important life stages?

Perhaps you worry whether your daughter will juggle a new baby with her developing career. Perhaps you worry whether your son’s new girlfriend is entirely suitable. Perhaps you see signs of mental instability or too much alcohol and wonder what you should do.

There are a myriad of circumstances and important decisions they will make, over which you have no control.

And I don’t mean worry in the sense that we worry slightly over loads of day-to-day irritations. I mean worry in the sense that it is immediate and palpable to you. You begin to be easily distracted when you should be thinking about other things. Or lose sleep. Perhaps you even lose your appetite.

This is a deep-down, umbilical-cord-still-attached kind of worry.

And it doesn’t help that we mothers of middle aged children are the subject of ridicule all over the world. I am sure we have all seen some movie where the young hero has to stop an important business meeting to deal with his over-protective and very annoying mother on the telephone.

It is always shown from the child’s point of view, too. The mother should have let go a long time ago.

Developing Coping Strategies

For those of us who do worry, it must be said that we probably have little control over the matter. The important issue is not what we feel, but what we do about it.

We all need to develop coping strategies for such moments. Go to the gym or for a long walk. Talk to your spouse or partner. Or a friend. More than once. Read a distracting book. Meditate.

The main thing is not to put our problems onto the very sons and daughters we are worried about. Avoid making a nuisance of yourself, however hard that might be. And, most certainly, don’t make that phone call.

When interviewing women for my book on being a grandmother, one woman made a very wise a comment about giving advice on parenting:

“Every grandmother has to be issued with a zip [finger across lips]. There’s a fine line between help and interference and you have to learn it. Nobody can teach it to you, because everybody’s experience is different.”

The same is true for other aspects of our children’s lives, however old they are. It’s not easy and I don’t always succeed myself, but it’s good advice.


In case you’re wondering, he got the job.

I wonder what I will worry about next?

This post was initially published by SixtyandMe.com.  See http://sixtyandme.com/of-mothers-and-adult-children-how-do-you-cope-with-thoughts-that-make-you-worry/

Living with AIDS or HIV in the dark days of the early 1990s


I was asked to write a post for a site specialising in history, called Myths, Legends, Books & Coffee Pots.  The following was my response:

Myths?  Definitely not.  Legends? No. Books?  Yes, for certain. And a very powerful one at that.

I am not a historian or a even a writer of historical fiction. I write books that are not easily squeezed into any genre. They are sometimes called ‘narrative non-fiction’, but I don’t much like the term. They are based on interviews with people talking about their lives and are best described as like a TV documentary, but in words.

So what does this have to do with history? Well, if you live long enough, what you lived through when you were younger becomes ‘contemporary history’. And nearly thirty years ago, in the early 1990s, there was a very real crisis in the lives of millions of people across the world – the rise and spread of HIV/AIDS.

Now, so many years later, this is seen to be almost like any other chronic disease, with those diagnosed being able to expect a normal life span. Back then, it was a different story. Seen as a kind of twentieth century plague, it had everyone terrified. For the individual afflicted, it caused a lot of pain and other physical and mental problems, followed by almost certain death. There was no cure.

Because of the stigma attached to the disease, people avoided talking about it. It was thought to be caught, primarily, from the transmission of bodily fluids via blood or sperm, but many lived in fear of accidental contagion.

And the data were frightening: millions died over a short number of years – not just in faraway places, but nearby. It took an enormous toll of mostly young people. Even writing about it now makes me tremble slightly.

Wise Before their Time is a book about a small number of people living with AIDS, who happened to be attending an international conference in London in 1991. It is based on interviews with 21 people – and written material submitted by 23 others –  spanning every continent.  It allows them to tell their stories in their own words. I felt the statistics being spouted at the time were so overwhelming, there was a need to see the human side.

These men and women talk about how they first learned of their diagnosis, the difficulties of telling their partners, friends and family and the problems of keeping in work and active. Indeed, they explore the many challenges of living with a stigmatising condition, often with numerous friends in the same situation and knowing that they did not have long to live. For the most part, perhaps in part because many were active in their local communities, they were immensely dignified and strong, hence the title of the book.

Sir Ian McKellen kindly offered to write a Foreword, in which he wrote that these stories were “as powerful as any great classic of fiction”.  But the power rests, in part, from the fact that it is not fiction. It is all true. Readers will come away with the real understanding of what it was like to live through this terrible time in living memory.

How did I come to write the book?  My day-to-day job was a researcher and writer on health issues – and this brought me in touch with many problems of the day. In 1989, I met Dietmar Bolle, a young (early thirties) gay German man, who had been living with AIDS for five years and was a busy AIDS activist. We had little in common (I was in my early fifties, happily married and not an activist at all), but somehow in the way that can sometimes happen, we became close friends.

At that time, I had no particular interest in AIDS – nor, indeed, in issues surrounding dying, although I subsequently wrote another book about people providing end-of-life care (Life in a Hospice).  But when I learned that Dietmar was the principal organiser of a conference – and had asked those attending to send in their ‘stories’ with their application, I was hooked.

I immediately saw that this could be lead to a load of fascinating stories, especially if supplemented by personal interviews. Here were  people living with the most feared disease of the day, all coming together to talk and learn. It would be a challenge to undertake and would prove a valuable way to humanise this dreadful condition.

Wise Before their Time is the result. Published by HarperCollins in 1992 (Dietmar did not live to see it),  it sold well at the time, but eventually fell by the wayside. I took back the rights from the publisher and re-launched it with a new cover and short introduction in 2017, primarily for its historical interest.

Here is one story, to give the flavour. As with the rest of the book, it is written in the present tense, but one has to assume that Danny died within a short time after the interview – along with others I tried to trace some years later.


Danny is thirty-two and from Northern Ireland. He is currently unemployed, having just spent four years at college studying theology. He had hoped to be ordained as an Anglican priest, but his ordination was deferred on grounds of his homosexuality. He is now seeking to have this decision overturned. He lives on his own.

Danny’s diagnosis is very recent:

I was diagnosed HIV on the 13th December 1990. The reason I went was I’d got a swollen gland under my armpit. I discovered that at Easter of last year and it was still there in December. When they took the test, it was a week’s wait. Those seven days were like an eternity.

I remember it exactly, probably always will. The doctor said to me, ‘As you know, Danny, we took some blood.’ I said, ‘Yes, I was here when you took it.’ And he said, ‘Well, we had the results back and I’m very sorry to tell you that it’s highly probable that you are positive.’ It was as if somebody kicked me in the balls. Then I thought, hang on, what do you mean ‘highly probable’?

This was my body we were talking about. It took me three times saying I wanted to know what’s going on before he said, ‘Okay, Danny, the results of the first test are positive.’ Although I’d more or less convinced myself that it was possible I was positive, it didn’t really prepare me for hearing those words. I’d lived in hope that the result of the test would be negative.

I went with a friend, a close woman friend, for the results. I went out and got her and the poor woman, she knew right away what had been said. We sat and talked to the doctor. Or she talked and I just gazed into oblivion.

I went back to her place that night, to her and her partner. I intended to get totally drunk, but no matter how many drinks I downed, I couldn’t quite make that stage. Who? Why? What’s going to happen? Who can I tell? Why me? And even, ‘Hang on a second, they got my test mixed up with somebody else. That’s what it is, some other poor sod has been told he’s negative and in fact he’s positive.’ And I thought, no, get a grip on yourself, that doesn’t happen.

My health has been fine. I’m healthier now than I have been for the last two years. The chances are that I’d been living with HIV for at least two years, as my weight had dropped then, over three stone in four months. I did go for a test at that time – and that proved negative. They said to come back in three months, because I had put myself at risk, but I was so relieved I didn’t bother going back.

One difficult aspect of learning about HIV is telling other people – friends, partners, parents and so forth:

The first people I told was the faculty at my college, because they were people I trusted. They’d seen me through the ordination being put off and stood by me. We disagreed very strongly, theologically, with God’s view of sexuality, but that didn’t matter. When I needed their support they were there. They were fantastic. I couldn’t have wished for more from anyone, both faculty and fellow students.

When I was first diagnosed, I was in a relationship with another bloke. We’d been together for a number of months. And although we practised safe sex, the first thought that came into my head was have I put him at risk? He wasn’t around for a few weeks. When I eventually told him, all he did was get up and just hold me for about twenty minutes, which was fantastic.

We’re no longer together. I don’t think it was anything to do with the HIV, but it might have been. The important thing for me was his immediate reaction – wanting to support and comfort and hold me. He didn’t get himself tested. He saw the health advisor and as a result decided that there was no call for him to be tested.

I haven’t told my mother and brothers. The three of them know that I’m gay – they’ve known since I was nineteen. That caused enough problems in itself. I went home this Easter, not really sure whether I was going to tell or not. I was only there for a week. And when it came to the Wednesday and I hadn’t told them, I thought no – thinking about my mother particularly – to dump this on her now and just leave would be an awful thing to do.

It’s a difficult thing. What I don’t want to happen is that in three years time I become ill with something like pneumonia and end up in hospital. I don’t want my mother to find out that way. That would be horrendous for her. But if I tell her now and then go on for the next ten years being healthy, will she spend those years in fear and trepidation?

In two or three years time, I’ll be ready. I’ll know when it’s time for me to tell. I want to tell her. It will send her up the wall, it will be as if things are caving in on her. After that, there would be, I hope, a tremendous amount of support.

There was a situation about three years ago where my brother wouldn’t let me see his kids. That tore me apart. I’d arranged to meet him at his home, to be there for the evening. I met him in the middle of the road and he said his wife didn’t want me near the kids, she’s afraid of AIDS. He said, ‘You’re a queer, queers get AIDS, don’t they.’ I left him, went into town and just got totally wrecked. I was in tears.

One effect of telling people is that relationships change:

Some of my close friends suddenly wanted to wrap me up in cotton wool. It was as if I became some china doll that had to be treated gently.

I was known at college as being one of the more controversial figures. I revelled in that. I’d be forever challenging people about issues to do with unemployment or race or sexuality. I loved getting into heated arguments at times. Two people in particular, I noticed that their whole tone towards me changed, they wanted to ‘care for’ me. I didn’t need to be cared for in that way. I said, ‘Listen, I’m still Danny, I’m not “Danny-HIV-positive”, I’m Danny.’

On one level, it was good to know their desire to shield me from other people’s ignorance and fear. On another level, I’m a fighter, born into the civil rights movement in Ireland and brought up with protest almost running in my veins. It was the possibility that that part of me could have been lost. They became like the parent and I became the child. But I was able to say, ‘Hang on a minute, I’m still me.‘ I still enjoy stirring things, I’ve spent my life breaking out of closets and I’m not about to be shut into another closet called HIV.

I’m now involved in a number of training groups. And I’ll say ‘Listen, if I as a person with HIV get up your nose, then bloody well tell me.’ If you begin treating someone as if they’re breakable, then you’re in danger of robbing them of some of their humanity.

There is always a fear of prejudice:

I get paranoid on occasion, I think I overhear or see the odd kind of look, as if people are talking about me, people who I’m not close to particularly. I refuse to keep my HIV status under lock and key. I’m not broadcasting it from the rooftop, but one of the things about HIV and AIDS is the stigma and the loneliness and isolation.

I used to run a playschool. I really love kids. Often, the mums would be a bit harassed and they’d say, ‘Here Danny, take this little so-and-so off me hands.’ And I’d take the child and look after them, while mum went for a walk. Which I loved. Sometimes, when the kids were coming through, before they’d get from A to B they would have to crawl all over Uncle Danny. You’d see me crawling under the tables chasing the kids.

One day, just after my diagnosis, I was doing that with one little kid and the thought hit me ­­– how would his parents react if they knew I was HIV-positive? And I froze, it was a horrendous thought. Then I thought, no, I’m not going to let this child suffer. He’s used to me chasing him around, he looks forward to it and I enjoy it as well. As for the parents, I don’t know how they’d have reacted, because they didn’t know.

Awhile later, I had an incident with a married couple who I’m very close to. I told the husband I’d been diagnosed HIV-positive. The next day, his wife came with her child around the corner and she said ‘Look who’s here, Jim’ as she did every morning. And Jim came tearing round, ‘Danny, Danny, hug’, arms in the air. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Just this woman being the same with me as she’d always been. I walked away feeling twelve foot tall.

It is most helpful to meet others in the same situation:

I can come across as being very outgoing, easy, laid back. And I am, partly. But there have been times when it’s almost as if the whole surroundings just freeze. And I’m just left there, feeling like I’m suspended on the end of some rope somewhere.

Within the week of being diagnosed, I went into the AIDS centre in my area and saw one of the workers. I told her and she didn’t say a word, she got up and came over and held me. That was exactly what I needed. Then I found I was going in there almost every day of the week, just to sit down and have a coffee. And let people in the street walk past – they could be out there, I was in here and I was safe.

I asked if I could speak with someone else with HIV. The feeling of relief when I saw this person who had been living with it for at least five years and he was healthy! That was so good, to talk to him. We were in the same boat. He knew what it was like, he had experienced some of the same things and he was enjoying his life.

Just the other day, I was asked to speak to someone who had just been diagnosed. That gave me a great feeling of contributing, of helping somebody else, just like this person that I spoke to. Just being there.

Danny found he needed to come to terms with himself:

When I was first diagnosed, I felt very angry at myself, that I had been stupid enough to pick up HIV. I should have been practising safe sex for at least five years.

In one of my counselling sessions, the counsellor piled on top of one another five telephone books. She gave me a piece of wood and said, ‘Anger doesn’t have to be a negative thing, it can be healing, but only if you express it.’ I started to hammer into the telephone books and it was frightening, the rage that was in me. It was directed against me.

My feeling about myself has changed. Overall, I like me. I am a wholer person today than I was this time last year. HIV brought out all kinds of issues – things that happened as a child – I’ve been able to look at them. I like being me. The God I believe in doesn’t make mistakes.

The Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of the Church so often seem two different people. Some parts of the Church even go as far as saying that AIDS is a plague sent by God. But those who think that haven’t met my God. That’s blasphemy, to say that God is a despot, playing germ warfare with sections of humanity, it’s blasphemy.

I’m going to go ahead with the ordination. Very much so. I’ve been on the road to ordination for eight years and I’m not about to fold up.

Originally posted on the site “Myths, Legends, Books & Coffee Pots”, the official blog of Historical Fiction author, Mary Anne Yarde. See https://maryanneyarde.blogspot.com/2019/07/join-ann-richardson-as-she-takes-look.html

Thinking about grandmothers: the view of older women

For those of us who have reached the age of ‘seniors’ or ‘pensioners or ‘crumblies’ (as my son used to say), we are of an age to think about grandmothers. Perhaps you are a grandmother or hoping to be one. Perhaps your friends are grandmothers. It is a whole new world to enjoy.

But does this make you think more about your own grandmother?

When I was writing my book about what it is like being a grandmother, many women I interviewed – including some friends – talked about how important one or other of their grandmothers had been to them.

They had spent a lot of time with their grandmother, learned many things from her, and some said they missed her constantly.

Surprising as it might sound, this was a bit of a new idea to me. Yes, I knew both my grandmothers until my late teens, but they were not an important part of my life nor a big influence.

They did not teach me much, did not pay me special attention, or take a real interest in what I was up to. They were just relatives who turned up from time to time, to whom I was required to be nice.

My Father’s Mother

One – my father’s mother – lived on the other side of the United States, and we saw her very infrequently. It’s hard to remember what a big deal it was to take an airplane in those days. And when someone spent the money and time to fly somewhere, they tended to stay for a while.

Although I never heard it said out loud, it was clear that this grandmother always over-stayed her welcome.

She would totally disrupt the household, as she was not reluctant to criticise my mother’s ways of keeping house and child-upbringing nor to verbalise many other issues on which she had an opinion. Her visits were therefore periods of great family tension, not conducive to a close relationship.

But she was, to her credit, interesting. She was what people might call ‘a bit of a character’. She felt she should have married ‘better’ than she did and would readily remind us of this fact.

My most memorable example was orthodontry, which I and my siblings benefitted from. “If they had that in my day…”, she once said, “none of you grandchildren would have been born!”

She was also highly politically involved. In the autumn of 1960, during the period just before the Presidential election, when visiting my uncle’s family in a different state, she had a heart attack and thought she was about to die (she didn’t).

She later said that, while contemplating her death, she was very pleased that she had already voted by absentee ballot. That put a whole new spin on the term.

My Mother’s Mother

My other grandmother – my mother’s mother – was very different. We saw her more frequently, as she lived much closer. She was dutifully invited for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other occasions and she – equally dutifully – took photographs of the family to be helpful.

This grandmother had few interests that I could see, aside from regular bridge games with friends and the usual concerns of a well-brought up suburban widow, such as charity and her church.

I know she was worried I would marry someone ‘unsuitable’, which covered almost all categories you might think of. I married only after she died, but I suspect she would not have approved.

This was a classic case of a grown-up daughter – my mother – becoming much more radical than the family from which she came, creating a cultural and political divide that was difficult to span.

It was evident that my parents had little time for this woman, so her visits were also a trial because everyone was trying so hard to get along.

Grandmothers Everywhere

The women I interviewed for my book also talked about their grandmothers, who came across as much more important to them. They came from very diverse backgrounds.

Some were rich and proud, some very poor; some were very warm and cuddly and others distant and cold. Many associated their grandmothers with food of one kind or another, whether the activities of preparation or the joys of eating.

Most felt that their grandmother had been a considerable influence on their lives and their attitudes to being a grandmother, whether positive or, in the occasional case, negative.

It made me realise how many different family stories there are.

A Relationship to Cherish

It must be wonderful to have a grandmother as a major influence in your life. Now that I am one, I realise that it is such a special relationship.

You can be very close but without the inevitable tensions that arise within the immediate nuclear family. You gain new perspectives and ways of doing things than you gain from your parents.

And you also gain a small foothold in history, if she talks about her own background and life as a child.

I have written a lot about the importance of this relationship to the grandmother, but yes, in the right family, it is also important to the grandchild.

This was first published under a different title by www.sixtyandme.com. See http://sixtyandme.com/does-being-a-grandma-change-how-you-look-at-your-own-grandmother/

The Many Joys of Teaching Grandchildren

As any grandmother will know, there are many sources of joy in the time spent with grandchildren. For me, a key one is teaching my grandsons something and seeing how they respond.

This is also a common theme in my book, Celebrating Grandmothers, where 27 women talk about the joys and challenges of being a grandmother. In their own words, they describe how they – like me – love teaching ­their grandkids all sorts of things.

Teaching Knowledge and Skills

We tend to think of teaching as passing on knowledge or a particular skill. Certainly, this can be a large element in many interactions with grandchildren. And it happens all the time, even when you are not noticing.

For example, you may be boiling an egg or baking a cake, and they suddenly take an interest and try to learn about cooking. Or, you may take out your knitting, and they see the result and want to have a go.

Such teaching may be accidental, as described, or it may be purposeful, undertaken specifically to pass on the skill. Either way, you can see them learning a lot, adding one step here and there to their journey to adulthood.

Teaching Values

But there is more to teaching than passing on facts or skills. Some women make a special effort to instill into their grandchildren the values and ethics by which they live.

In my book, some women gave particular importance to teaching values. Indeed, they felt that this was so important that it should be left to parents and was an inappropriate role for grandparents.

Others, however, felt strongly that they also had a part to play. One woman was keen to teach the importance of a belief in a Christian God. Another, in contrast, explained that she was teaching her grandchildren not to be ruled by a blind faith, but to question everything.

Although diametrically opposed in the specifics, both had the same goal of affecting their grandchildren’s values in life.

Teaching Children to Think

And finally, what I find truly exciting is teaching my grandchildren to think for themselves. This involves challenging their thoughts and helping them to see other points of view, so they can begin to work out their own position.

Such teaching flows easily from everyday discussions. Just the other day, for example, we were watching the television news and there was a long piece about migration into the US (although it could equally have been migration into Europe).

This started a discussion with one visiting grandson of why people want to migrate, why their situation is different from tourists, and how migration affects everyone involved. This entailed him asking loads of questions, as he began to see the complexity of the issues.

A few minutes later, there was another news item on people protesting climate change. Our grandson, although concerned about climate issues, was upset at the idea of protesters making people late for work.

We then moved to explore how people can best bring an issue to public attention. My husband asked the simple question, “What would you do?” Lengthy discussions ensued.

It is very satisfying to see a young person’s brain confronting complexity and trying to think things out.

The Joys of Teaching

I have never been a teacher by profession, but I am a teacher by inclination. I really love passing on what I have learned in the course of my life. And it is wonderful to see the impact on a young mind.

It is rewarding, first, if you see a great response in the person you teach. Some children light up with pleasure at learning a new activity, such as a sport. You show them how to manipulate a ball, and they are thrilled and do it again and again.

I am currently teaching one grandson to swim. He loves the water and enjoys working out how to move himself through it. If this is partly due to my own efforts, how can I not be thrilled?

It is also rewarding when something you taught is truly learned. Whether it is a new word or how to put together a toy, or something you believe in, keep a watch and listen – and see how it comes out later.

And finally, there is something rewarding about feeling part of a link down the chain of the generations. Your grandmother may have taught you to cook and now you are teaching your granddaughter.

You are part of the circle of life.


This post was originally published by Sixtyandme.com (see http://sixtyandme.com/the-many-joys-of-teaching-our-grandchildren/)

The importance of hospice care


You work hard, carefully and totally out of the limelight. You produce a book that has some importance, as it is about the wonderful care that can be provided to people at the end of their lives. You think it will bring hope to ordinary people, worrying from time to time about how it will be for them or their family. Not to mention some support to those who do this work, as their labours and their difficulties are not often given much recognition.

The book gets the occasional review, but is not well marketed by the publishers, and falls into that vast collection of books that sell one or two copies a year. This is not good enough. So, you get the rights to the book back and re-launch it on Amazon. It begins to sell a lot more copies.

And then you get a review that understands what it is all about:

This is a gem of a book for anyone interested in palliative care and hospice work. There are many myths and preconceptions around what goes on inside the walls, many of them increase people’s anxiety and fear about contemplating death and dying.

Ann Richardson has taken a unique approach to this subject by sharing insights from a wide range of people who work in a palliative care setting. Their reflections are incredibly honest and insightful, as contributors share the joys and sorrows of their role. Anyone reading this collection of insights will gain a true picture of how those working in the setting bring a range of practical skills to the task in hand, but also bring themselves whole-heartedly, and often at personal cost.

There is a starkness in some of these reflections that represents the challenge of working with death every day, but if prospective patients were to read this, they would gain an assurance that those offering care are people of compassion and a deep sense of caring.

Hospices are unusual places in that they represent ‘thin places’ between life and death. People often have a view of what a building will be like that is at a great contrast from the reality. Ann’s presentation of such a variety of hospice life snap shots is a valuable resource for potential patients and their families, to give confidence in the support they will receive.

Staff and volunteers have reflected on their work with congruence and it is a tribute to Ann that they were prepared to speak about their emotions so freely. It is a unique collection of honest reflections and I commend Ann for bringing such a collection together to inform the public of the different roles with in the life of a hospice, but also to allow such a range of people a voice to share deeply held personal insights into these places which offer specialist palliative care.

Ann gives a picture of a hospice which could be representative of the many similar places that exist in this country, providing other hospices with a great resource to share with patients and staff alike.

by Karen Murphy, chaplain at Weston Hospicecare and President of Association of Hospice and Palliative Care Chaplains (AHPCC).Karen Murphy and Bob Whorton are the authors of Chaplaincy in Hospice and Palliative Care, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017

Yes, hospice care is important – I hope many more people are able to get this message.

To buy Life in a Hospice, available in paperback or as an e-book, go to https://amzn.to/2FbSta9 or https://www.books2read.com/u/bpWk0z

The importance of neighbours

My very friendly next-door neighbours moved back to the US last month. In many ways, it was not a surprise, as they were always going to be visitors in London – here because of the husband’s job. Yet it came as both a shock and a loss.

Perhaps I am not alone in this position.

The Role of Neighbours

The role of neighbours in our lives is an interesting one. They may become good friends, of course, but often – however friendly you are with them – there is a certain amicable distance.

You meet on the doorstep when putting out the trash or even stop in the street for a chat when out shopping.

I have neighbours with whom I can have lengthy discussions about the schooling of our grandchildren or the state of the world. Such talks can be so engrossing that my husband begins to worry what happened to me when I had only popped out for some milk.

You also do all sorts of small things for one another, like taking in packages or offering the proverbial cup of sugar. Perhaps you occasionally water a garden or keep an eye on the cat.

The Importance of Neighbours

It might be said that neighbours now substitute for what the larger family traditionally did as a matter of course.

When extended families used to live near each other (or, indeed, with each other), it would often be the older generation who would come to the rescue when there was a problem.

As I have written in my book about grandmothers, this can still happen, but often people simply live too far away.

We, for instance, often step in for a 15-minute babysit when a neighbour with three kids has one child suddenly down with the flu and needs to get the others to school.

Although these little niceties are small, they make life so much richer. Not to mention easier. You may not see the neighbours all that much or you may see them often, but you feel more comfortable knowing they are around.

Getting to Know Your Neighbours

Big cities are famous for not being very friendly places, with people feeling lonely in the midst of a large population.

This may be true for many, but you may be surprised that a lot of people do get to know their neighbours. In some countries, this is easy, with very little required for people to break the ice.

In the UK, with its tradition of people keeping to themselves, it can be more difficult. Children are a great enabler of friendliness. I certainly met some of our neighbours through our children and, now, through our grandchildren. I believe dogs serve much the same purpose.

Some places seem to have a tradition of neighbourhood friendliness. I know of one family who, on the day of moving in to their new house, were greeted by a bottle of wine and a friendly note from those living nearby.

Unfriendly Neighbours

Not everyone has friendly neighbours, of course. This is often a nightmare scenario. You hear shouting, or worse, and don’t know what to do. They have loud parties or don’t clean up their rubbish and it all affects your quality of life.

Sometimes, they are doing nothing more than enjoying their garden, talking to friends well into the night or, as we used to experience, barbecuing fish. You can’t really complain, but you wish they wouldn’t do it.

Years ago, we had some very unfriendly neighbours who threw rubbish over our common fence and once threw a brick through our window. We called in the police, who claimed that there was little they could do. We moved soon after.

Moving Away

There are many things we may take for granted until they are gone. One of these, in my view, is friendly neighbours. If you have lived in the same place for a long time, you know them quite well. And you know you can ask them for help (and are happy to reciprocate).

If they move, you will miss them.

And if you want to move, it does make you stop and think. As we are at the age of down-sizing, we have begun to consider the road ahead. There are numerous pros and cons, and it is an easy decision to put off.

But I realised that I felt strongly that one of the ‘pulls’ to staying put was the existence of so many people in my road who would help us if we needed it. This can be hard to establish in a new place. It certainly gave us pause.

We Like to Know They Are There

Years ago, I was designing a questionnaire on levels of involvement among members of patient support groups. It was easy to specify committee membership or frequency of meeting attendance, but I felt there was something more passive but subtle.

I came up with “I don’t attend my local group often, but I like to know it is there.”

Bingo; that was ticked more than anything else.

Afterwards, I thought this is a category that comes up in life quite often – the things we don’t use actively, but we are very pleased to know that they are there.

Good neighbours come under this heading.


This was first posted on Sixtyandme.com (see http://sixtyandme.com/how-important-are-your-neighbours-as-you-reach-the-mark-of-60/)

Driving in old age – how do you cope with a parent’s reluctance to stop?

A certain royal person, in his late 90s, was in the news recently in the UK. He had had a car accident – the car he was driving had ended up on its side – and it was reported that he was a bit “shaken up.” As one would be, even if you were much younger.

It started some conversations about old people and driving.

Old People and Cars

This is a serious issue – and one which affects a lot of us these days.

In my case, it was my father. I lived an ocean away from my parents and kept in touch by telephone but went to visit a couple of times a year or more. My dad would always meet me at the airport – driving, of course.

At some point, when he was in his mid-80s and his eyesight was failing, I began to worry for his safety. And that of other people, including myself.

Not surprisingly, he loved the sense of freedom that owning and driving a car brought.

So, understandably, it was a hard subject to broach.

“Don’t bother to meet me at the airport,” I said breezily a few days before I was due to travel. But he wasn’t fooled.

“You’re worried about my driving,” he replied, “but really, I’m just fine.” I asked him to get his friend, who was a lot younger, to drive him to the airport. Which he did.

Later, I raised the subject again. I stressed that I was worried because of his eyes: there might be a small child in front of the car. Without missing a beat but with a slight smile, he answered that there probably won’t be.

He knew he was beaten and knew that he shouldn’t be driving. But he had loved his car for as long as I could remember – indeed, from before I was born. And now, in his old age, it gave him independence, and he liked the fact that it allowed him to be helpful to others.

My father did decide to stop. Perhaps he was relieved, but he never indicated any such emotion. And at dinner, a number of his friends, who had already been told of my audacity, thanked me. They had tried hints, they had tried reason, but he wouldn’t listen. But they were pleased he listened to me.

A Global Problem

Soon after this happened, I spoke to a friend in Germany who’d had the same problem with her father. Another friend in the UK had it with her mother.

I realised that this was a problem all over the world – how to tell an otherwise independent parent that they should stop driving. You are embarrassed, they are defensive – and it is altogether difficult for everyone.

I wonder how many people as they grow into their 60s and beyond face this issue – with their very elderly parents or with a spouse or, indeed, with themselves.

We love our cars, we love the freedom driving brings, and it can be a real question whether our minor frailties have grown too large for us to cope.

Flowers for Forgiveness

But let me tell you the end of my story. Immediately after that trip from the airport when my dad was not driving for the first time, I found a bowl of flowers on the table in my room.

This was not at all usual and I was taken aback. With them, he had left a note: “With love and forgiveness.” I asked him, of course, what he was forgiving me for. “For telling me not to drive,” he said.

We all do things in our own way. He was a constant surprise.


This was initially published with a different title by SixtyandMe (see http://sixtyandme.com/driving-a-right-or-a-privilege-in-old-age/)

How does it feel when your children become middle aged?

My daughter turned 50 this week. Yes, 50. How did that happen? I was 50 myself only a few months ago – or so it seems.

Children and Time

When it comes to our children, time seems to work at a different pace. We do what we do, go about our business and, in the background, we vaguely know we are growing older. We tend not to notice – or, in some cases, try our best not to notice – that we are ageing, too.

But how do our children age so fast? It was only a few years ago, surely, when we were chasing them around the park or helping them tiptoe through the minefield of adolescence.

And not that long ago at all that we were watching them seek to find themselves in their 20s and 30s. They tried out jobs, quit, and tried again. Often the same with boyfriends or girlfriends. And that was OK. We worried, of course, but it was what they were supposed to do at that age.

But you suddenly notice they are getting even older. Settling down, setting up house with a partner or even spouse ­­– and gosh, even having kids themselves. I have written a lot about grandmothers, including a book about how it feels to be a grandmother, so I know well about that.

But how in the world did that happen?

Feelings Towards Middle Aged Children

My father used to say that he didn’t mind getting old, but he couldn’t bear having middle aged children. I now know what he meant. In many ways, it is the biggest indicator of your own age. He always said I was 31.

And there is no terminology for it. The word ‘children’ implies people who are young, although your children remain your children whatever age they are. We can talk about our sons and daughters, but there is no ready collective term for these very adult adults.

Their Choices

But once you accept the fact, there is something pleasing about your children getting older. Especially if they have settled into a good life and have a strong sense of themselves.

There is a fair chance that they are not doing what you imagined when you were chasing them around the playground. But is it good for them? Are they happy in themselves?

And they probably didn’t marry exactly the person you imagined all those years ago. But are their marriages (or partnerships) strong? Are they successful as parents? These are the important issues – not the actual age that has suddenly come to your attention.

The Problem Crops Up at All Ages

Perhaps you are a bit younger than me. Your youngest son has just turned 25 or your daughter has turned 40. The numbers are different, but the feelings are the same. You still ask yourself, where has the time gone?

And it continues right on up. I have a friend in her mid-90s whose children are all retired or in the process of retiring. We certainly agreed that was strange. But it will happen more and more as we live longer and longer.

So, enjoy what you have, each and every day. Your children are, indeed, growing older. So are you. So, for that matter, are your grandchildren if you have them.

There are, undoubtedly, bumps along the way. I am told that there is a Chinese proverb to the effect that mothers are as happy as their least happy child. So true.

I hope that means you are happy enough.


To purchase my book on grandmothers, go to https://amzn.to/2OulTEI

This was originally published on Sixtyandme.com (http://sixtyandme.com/what-is-the-best-thing-about-seeing-your-adult-children-grow-older/)

Why do you look after your grandchildren – because you have to or because you want to?

How much time do you spend looking after your grandchildren? If you don’t live nearby, then it is probably decided each time you visit. But if you do live within easy distance, you may have a regular routine.

From my study of grandmothers, I found that many women do have such a routine worked out with their daughter or daughter-in-law. It makes it easier for everyone to plan.

The Traditional Role of Grandmothers

Traditionally, in centuries past, playing an active part in their grandchildren’s lives is what grandmothers did. Of course. It was not even questioned.

The mother had her baby and went back to work in the fields as soon as she was ready. Then her mother (or mother-in-law) took over and absorbed the new baby into her own day-to-day activities.

It might be the first child or the fifth. If the grandmother was fit and healthy – and perhaps even if she wasn’t – that was her role in life.

Modern Grandmothers

It is more complicated for most of us these days.

For a start, it is more often the office that the mother goes back to. And, depending on the country or her company, there may be some form of maternity leave – to give her a chance to catch her figurative breath.

But it is also different for grandmothers. Some have busy careers themselves and little time to absorb new babies into their lives. Or, with the increasing tendency for young people to delay births, grandmothers may be very old and not so able to take in a young child on a regular basis.

Yet somehow, there are a lot of grandmothers who have agreed to take on the day-to-day care of their grandchildren, at least until they start nursery school. And some continue right on up, as the chief taker to – and collector from – nursery and then school itself.

A few do this on a daily basis, but perhaps more often, they agree to take on the role for one or two days a week.

Is that you? Why did you agree to such an arrangement?

Why We Look After Grandchildren

Some of us will have felt that we had no choice. Our daughter (or daughter-in-law) was at a key stage of her career and could not afford to pay for child care. We needed to help her out, at least temporarily, whatever the crimp it put into our day-to-day plans.

Others will have been thrilled at the prospect. What a delight to have a young baby or child around the house again! How enriching it is to involve yourself so thoroughly in a young life. They jump at the chance.

The key issue is – have you taken on this work because you felt you had to or because you wanted to? The resulting child care may be the same, but a woman’s feelings on the matter do count. Especially if she is not feeling very well and needs to push herself out of bed to go do ‘her’ day.

My Own Experience

In fact, from my own experience, I think it is more complicated than that simple dichotomy.

When my first grandson was born, I made it clear to my daughter that I did not want to be burdened with babysitting. She lived an hour away, so the travel was a bit of an issue, especially at night. But I also didn’t want to feel that she had a licence to impose on my time. I had other things to do.

My daughter was lovely about this and, only occasionally asked, gently and nicely, if I might be willing to help out for an hour or two. Which I duly did. All sorted amicably.

But three years later, when my son’s baby son was born, and I had argued much the same case, a crisis arose. My daughter-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer when the baby was eight months old. She needed surgery, chemo, the lot. Suddenly, all help was needed, fast.

I didn’t take on full-time child care but put in my good share. We bought all the necessary baby items for our house – cot (crib), highchair, and so forth – so that he could stay with us at any time on short notice.

The other grandmother came to stay nearby for six months to help out, and we paid for someone else as well. Somehow, we managed to cobble together enough help to see my daughter-in-law through. And, for the record, nine years later, she is fine.

But something important happened to me as a result of this experience. I discovered, to my own surprise, that I loved the close involvement that I had with this grandson. I even regretted that I had not had it with the first one.

What had been ‘don’t want to’ had become ‘have to’, but ‘have to’ became ‘want to’.

Things change. Life is full of surprises.

This was originally published by Sixty and Me (http://sixtyandme.com/why-do-you-look-after-your-grandchildren-because-you-have-to-or-because-you-want-to/)

Charity Days – the case for World AIDS Day

It was World AIDS Day at the beginning of the month of December.  Indeed, I believe, it is AIDS Awareness Month for the whole of December.

Are you fed up with causes? Do you see the word ‘AIDS’ and think “Oh, no, not another blasted cause I am supposed to support.” You have enough things to do. You just don’t need anything more.

Well, stick around, it is more complicated than that.

World AIDS Day

World AIDS Day comes every year, even though AIDS is no longer a life-threatening disease if you have the medication. Of course, there are plenty of people in developing countries who can’t get the medication, so it remains a serious cause.

But don’t run away. Not just yet. This is not another plea for compassion.

Quite the reverse.

So Many Good Causes

Compassion fatigue is genuine and understandable. We all feel we are constantly being pressured to Do Something. There is so little we can do in any case – it just makes us feel guilty.

And perhaps you have your own favourite cause, be it helping needy children overseas or climate change or cancer. Perhaps you donate money on a regular basis, or volunteer, or both.

My Interest in AIDS

My own interest in AIDS stems from the fact that a good friend, then aged only 32, died from it a long time ago.

He was an AIDS activist and one of his last activities of note was to organise an international conference for people with AIDS and HIV. This was attended by some 500 men and women, all of whom were HIV positive.

Because of our friendship, he allowed me to interview some of the people attending the conference, and then put the results together into a book. I made him a co-author in honour of his contribution, although he died before the book was published.

The people interviewed were very young – mostly under 40. They were from all over the world – Mexico, Morocco, Uganda, Germany, Malaysia, to name a few as well as the US, Canada, and the UK. None were expected to live very long.

What they had to say was both honest and impressive. Nothing to do with being a ‘cause’ or feeling sorry for themselves. They saw themselves as ordinary people trying to work out what was the best way to live when you know you don’t have very long.

They told stories about their lives and relationships, both the very real challenges and, sometimes, joys. They expressed, on the whole, very positive attitudes and resilience. I felt I could learn a lot from them. Their stories are said by one reviewer after another to be ‘very powerful’.  One commented that it makes the problems in your own life feel small.

I called the book Wise Before Their Time for a reason.

Yet it was a horrific situation and, all those I was able to trace had died within a year or two of the conference.


By all means, volunteer for the cause of your choice or give money to it. But that is not what I am talking about here.

We should think about people with AIDS – or, indeed, people in many other difficult situations ­– not because they are a worthy cause but because there is something we might learn from them. It’s not about giving – it is about receiving.  They have much to say.

And I have learned a lot.


This was first published on Sixtyandme.com (see http://sixtyandme.com/world-aids-day-or-how-we-react-to-different-causes-in-our-60s/) but has been revised slightly here.