As my mum hits 90, I fear the robot helper just isn't going to cut the mustard

Jenny Eclair

My mother celebrated her 90th birthday last week. June (who was born in May) still lives very much independently on the Fylde coast and told me she’d woken up on the morning of her birthday and felt “awed” to be so old.

The word “awed” sums it up beautifully because reaching ninety is impressive and it’s equally a tiny bit overwhelming.

So much has changed in my mother’s lifetime, most for the better, but not all for the good, self-service tills anyone?

Since she was born in 1929 my mother has witnessed revolutions in medicine and society, in space travel and politics, she comes from an era of outside loos and illegal homosexuality, back-street abortions and tinned spam. Over the years she has seen the dreaded polio, which snuck up on her in a cinema when she was in her twenties, all but eradicated thanks to immunisation, an incredible achievement, even if it means she is still wearing a caliper designed in the fifties.

The world of NHS surgical appliances for the elderly is still pretty archaic. Dodgy leg aside, at ninety my mother takes no prescription drugs whatsoever (unlike her HRT dependent, blood-pressure tablet dropping younger daughter) and has to be forced into swallowing the occasional paracetamol.

My sister, my daughter and I went North to take her and her girl gang out for lunch. Ten years ago there would have been many more faces around the table and my father would still be alive. Not everyone reaches ninety. My father did but he hadn’t been able to walk for a number of years and he died four months later in a nursing home, his vital functioning organs no longer able to function but all his marbles intact.

How long we live and how well we live in old age is such a lottery and whilst there are some tennis playing, yoga bunny exceptions to the rule, most of us who do reach 90 will have something wrong with us either physically or mentally, even if it’s just heartburn or bunions.

But around that table of women mostly in their eighties, no one complained of anything, no one moaned or said it wasn’t fair or that life was tough, they just seemed to be getting on with it. Even though I know that some of them have ongoing health problems, they weren’t going to bore anyone else with them, they were having lunch in a nice place and that seemed to be sufficient. Maybe you have to reach a grand old age to live in the moment?

Now I thought long and hard what to buy my mum for her birthday, her sofa is already littered with cushions I’ve hand-embroidered, so I framed a painting I’d done of a lake with daffodils in the foreground, but what else? Sadly books are out as her reading vision isn’t what it used to be and in any case I’ve finally persuaded her to switch over to Audible. Handy hint for those of you downloading books for elderly mums, some Elizabeth Gaskell novels are 27 hours long!

For my mum that’s about a months worth of listening, by which time a new Audible credit is waiting and I’ll be due a visit to download the next one.

As for smellies, she’s as allergic as I am to most bath and shower products and considering there is only so much gin and chocolate that she can manage without tripping over the furniture and running the risk of developing type-2 diabetes, I panicked and bought her an Alexa. The electronic virtual assistant that you can ask anything from the comfort of your armchair. What a brain wave, and the granddaughter was in situ to set it up after lunch, bonus.

Meanwhile at the nice restaurant, prosecco in hand, our ladies tucked into big starter bowls of mussels, polished off plates of sea bream and demolished a frosted lemon birthday cake. My mother wore a glittery striped jumper and as she sat next to her 93-year-old sister you could still see the girls they would have been back in the 1930’s.

Back at her flat after lunch, my daughter set up the Alexa and we demonstrated her magical powers by firing questions at her such as, what day is it? Tell us the news headlines? What’s the temperature outside? Play Radio 2, who is Jenny Eclair (bit of an anxious moment there but eventually she had the grace to read out my wikipedia entry).

After a while, we encouraged my mother to join in, but I think she’d have rather opened her birthday gin and eaten a birthday chocolate. Deep down I don’t think her heart was in it and I have a feeling that the next time I visit, Alexa is going to be unplugged, in fact she might be back in her box at the back of the coat cupboard

It’s not that my mother is ungrateful, she isn’t. It’s more a case of what does she really need to ask her? My mother is ninety, she already knows everything.