'I shall be like that tree,' predicted Jonathan Swift, pointing to a stag-headed specimen. 'I shall die from the top.' As modern medicine becomes ever more adept at keeping our bodies going, increasing numbers of us can look forward to the same grim fate, and the misnamed 'care' (often no more than a form of warehousing) that goes with it. There was a harrowing programme on TV last night in which the businessman Gerry Robinson looked into what goes on in homes that care for the demented elderly, and it was grim viewing indeed. His uphill struggle to improve matters in one home - recently, to his undisguised amazement, upgraded to 'adequate' - was finally blown out of the water when allegations of sexual offences caused it to be closed down. The sight of the bewildered and terrified residents being wheeled out to die elsewhere was one of the most hauntingly terrible things I have ever seen on TV. What will future generations make of our treatment of the elderly - or indeed of babies and young children, who are similarly regarded as a problem to be farmed out to low-paid 'carers' (those that are allowed to live, that is - the scale of abortion in this country might also appall future generations)? It seems that any activity that involves one human being looking after, caring for another human being is by definition low status and low paid (unless it can be 'professionalised' into respectability). Is this because it is 'women's work'? Or is it just that we live in a society that values getting and spending above all else, regarding the truly important matters of life and death as peripheral - though all of us know that really they are central? If you're lucky enough to be lucid as you near death, will you look back and think Gosh I wish I'd spent more time in the office? And yet, while we are working, we must all entertain the delusion that it matters more than anything else. The result of all that getting and spending is that even the relatively poor among us live at a level of luxury that to past generations would seem beyond the remotest possibility. And yet, in the midst of this unheard-of wealth, we cannot spare enough to care properly for the most vulnerable among us. Swift, by no means a rich man, gave away a third of his earnings to charity, and saved another third to found the St Patrick's Hospital for Imbeciles. As he put it in his own ironic epitaph,
'He gave the little wealth he had
To build a house for fools and mad.'