Who Cared?

Beatrice Hale, Dunedin, August, 2017

I like to write a mixture of fiction and non-fiction.  Currently, I’m writing about caregiving for older people throughout history, entitling it From Neanderthal to the Net.  And I’m hoping to have a conversation through this blog with people interested in how to present the knowledge, and the idea itself.

Where, I ask myself, did this idea come from?  Interest in the past, work experiences, writing experiences?  A combination of things?    As a former social worker with older people, I am interested in the different ideas of caregiving – family, community, informal, formal.

A few years ago, my elder daughter gave me a book on Prehistory and Compassion, by Penny Spikins and co-authors, and I started reading about the DNA analyses of ancient skeletons, showing us more about how they would have lived.  Some could only have lived if they got considerable care.  Then I found Australian, Lorna Tilley’s work.   She describes the dwarfish young man who couldn’t work with the men, nor even it seems, help the women with foraging and gathering, was cared for. And there are many others. 

But how were they cared for? And who did the caring? 

I was curious about what care there would have been in past times. Who cared for people with disabilities? Did the ancient Greeks really expose disabled infants on the hillsides? Were disabled older people moved out of their homes by their families to beg and exist somehow in the community? Did family members care for older people or did they end up in the workhouse because women had to work, or because they had no family?  Did the Eskimoes really put their elderly on to ice floes and leave them to perish?

What else? A bit more delving to glean ideas and fill in the picture.  This delving involves some wonderful books which take you way beyond the visible horizons, and far away into the distant past where you rub shoulders with ancient peoples.

Egypt and Babylon, Greece and Rome, here care links up with inheritance, and with power.  Basically, it was ‘you care for me, and I’ll leave you….my property, jewellery….’ Etc.   And if there were no children to care, then the older people would adopt the nearest kin possible.

And power: women shouldn’t care or nurse, because that means they’d have power over the sick man. 

What about slave labour, I thought.  I’m still delving into that one.

Next comes early Christianity which had special groups such as the almanah, or widows’ group, in 3-5 century AD, who go and minister to the sick.  On to mediaeval societies and the beguinage, a well-known women’s group which began in Antwerp in the thirteenth century, I think, who took on ‘charity work’.  I’m looking at Cities of Ladies, by Walter Simon.

And also what was hygiene like in them there days?  Look up The Dirt on Clean, by Katherine Ashenberg.

What about Noise?  There’s a wonderful book on Noise, with a chapter on noisy feet on outside staircases, Can you imagine writing about Noise?  And there’s an intriguing book on The Making of Home, by Judith Flanders, covering 500 years of how our houses became our homes.  I thought they were always like that, from cave years onwards.  But apparently not so.

Lucy Worsley in If Walls could Talk (thank you, Huberta Hellendoorn for recommending this book to me), also talks about cleanliness, among many other things.  What I love about this book is how she takes one room, and explores every facet.  The story of the kitchen, for example, she says is also the story of food safety, transport, technology and gender relations.  I’d add, too, and of creativity, taste and artistry. 

Victoria Finlay, in Colour, adventures through the Paintbox, does the same.  An unputdownable book!  My copy is very worn.

So, to conclude and get on with the writing, in recreating some matters on Care of the Elderly (in which I have a great personal interest these days), I’m having a great time!  So please, let me continue this conversation as I work my way through the ideas, and these marvellous books, all related in some way to the idea of care.