The secretary of state for health, Jeremy Hunt, has made a national call for reconciliation with elderly relatives, following news that local councils are funding eight 'lonely funerals' per day.
This statement is an excellent example of how out of touch government departments are on the realities of family life and breakdown. The picture painted by Hunt places responsibility on the young in this situation, indicating that we must be 'in touch' with our elderly relatives. Although the sentiment is angled towards breaking down isolation (which is admirable in its intention) there are pieces of the family jigsaw missing.
Distance from a family member may not be accidental. Many families will find lasting and healthy reconciliation extremely difficult without intervention. There are often psychological issues and politics at play, and often both sides have failed to overcome these barriers in maintaining a healthy and close relationship on their own.
Our research shows many have suffered harm at the hands of their families, and have struggled on their own to change this dynamic. Most often, one side will fail to validate the separate experience of the other, and members may struggle take responsibility for any perceived wrongdoing.
So can't we just get over it? Can't we just pick up the phone? Many people who are 'distant' from a relative may have tried to pick up the phone numerous times, and may have tried to heal the hurt they perceive. But the idea that separate family realities, feelings and experiences are not valid in a family relationship is a harmful narrative to continually re-visit. Thus, many of us stop re-visiting this, for the good of our own health.
What Jeremy Hunt is suggesting is an easy win in times of austerity, and will chime with his core demographic of mostly elderly conservative voters. It will bring shame on people like me, who don't foresee organising my parents' funeral or indeed keeping them company everyday in their old age. This is a fact I am sad about, but a relationship I have tried to work on many times.
Thus, perhaps this is the time to think about early intervention with those families where abuse is perceived and breakdown is more likely. If health departments promoted the idea of family therapy earlier for these families, or indeed at all, we may overcome many of the isolation issues that drain our social security budgets. This doesn't only include care for the elderly, but also youth homelessness and mental health issues developing as a consequence of abuse and isolation.
However, politicians should we wary about using universal truths when it comes to family, particularly without offering people the skills and support to 'always be together'. Families are too nuanced for these slogans. And shaming the young won't change isolation for the elderly, not without the elderly also claiming some responsibility at the same time.