Grandmother’s carers: Fable from a future foretold

Grandmother was over 105 and and she needed 24-hour care. Her children, themselves in their eighties, decide to buy caring robots  to look after all her needs. A fable by Jeremy Seabrook 

When the family were told their grandmother would need 24-hour care for the rest of her life, they were appalled. Who is going to pay for it, they wanted to know. We can’t possibly afford it. We have our own needs.

Her children were already in their eighties. They had not the strength to lift her, nor to feed her or perform the other tasks vital to her comfort. In any case, she had passed her 105th birthday; and after that celebration, the question was what to do with her for the rest of her life. Given the strides made in longevity, there was no reason why she should not live for several more years. Her grandchildren also were in their sixties, close to retirement: they had their own grandchildren to look after while their parents worked.

The unparalleled experience of living with one’s ancestors was not an unalloyed blessing. There were examples of eight-generation families, so that although it was possible to know people who had been born more than a century before, it was difficult to find a place in crowded lifetimes for those who lived on.

There had recently appeared on the market, a caring robot, which could perform many basic tasks, and, once accustomed to the voice of its owner/leaseholder, could execute requests and commands. Although expensive, it seemed an investment far more reliable than carers, women whose importunate families and children often called them away to other duties than their daily labour. In any case, you never saw the same person twice was a common complaint. What more reliable and predictable than a robot, which had no will of its own and depended solely upon its master or mistress in order to act?

In the interests of safety, the family bought two servants, as their constructor marketed them; so that if there were a faulty part in one, the other could take its (her?) place. In this way, grandmother would be able to stay in her own home, in which, apart from the ticking of the clock on the mantel-shelf, the only other sound was of the appreciating value of the property. There would, when grandmother was finally called to her rest, be more to share between the four siblings. More than this, the robot-servants were sophisticated enough to perform all the duties which one or other of the children – for so they thought of themselves despite their age – had had to carry out, including, emptying the commode, hygienically preparing and delivering food to the chair-bound woman, helping her to undress and even tucking in her bedclothes. One of them was even programmed to kiss her good night, admittedly with a cold metallic touch, but at least there was some contact.

They never tired. For the first few weeks, the children visited to make sure that the servants delivered all that the manufacturers had promised. No fault could be found. Obedient, submissive, the robots could not, it seemed, do enough to answer the old lady’s needs. The family gave notice to the women who had been paid to look after her; and these went to find alternative employment at such agencies as still provided human care.

With the passing of time, it became clear that the robots served, not only to provide mobility, food preparation and medication, but they stood sentinel over her; should she fall or feel unwell, they could alert the Medical Centre, and someone would come within minutes. Not only that: she seemed to enjoy their company. She called them names – names which changed daily because her memory was failing, and she rarely recalled how she had addressed them from one day to the next.

The robot-servants were sophisticated enough to perform all the duties which one or other of the children – for so they thought of themselves despite their age – had had to carry out, including, emptying the commode, hygienically preparing and delivering food to the chair-bound woman, helping her to undress and even tucking in her bedclothes. One of them was even programmed to kiss her good night, admittedly with a cold metallic touch, but at least there was some contact

It relieved the relatives, who had no jealousy at being usurped by the quaint mechanical creatures who were now the old woman’s constant companions. In any case, they had, as they said, their own lives to lead; and since they were also ageing, much of this involved appointments with doctors, hospitals and other medical specialists. They saw her less frequently; and as for her descendants, they scarcely knew of her existence in the bungalow with its half-drawn curtain, the TV that played most of the time, the occasional visits from neighbours who came to wonder at the robots which had so willingly lent themselves to her service.

She lived on. The society in which she had the good fortune to survive, prided itself on the longevity it now assured a majority of its members. Grandmother’s relations slept soundly in their beds.

When she did die, there was no outpouring of grief; even though some lamented that a mere 114 years was not a full life, when children born now could expect to last to live to at least 140.

There was a brief ceremony for her cremation. The attendance in the chill chapel with its coffin surmounted by wreaths of lilies was sparse. The relatives, who knew exactly how much each would receive from the sale of her property, sat, upright, dry-eyed, with no display of emotion, even when the final hymn was played ‘The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended.’

At the termination of the service, the relatives walked out into the winter sunshine. In attendance also had been the two robots who had served her tirelessly. They were the last to leave. Where they had stood in the chapel, an acute observer might have noticed a small but unmistakable pool of tears the colour of rusty metal.

She had also bequeathed her house to the carers. The will was, of course, successfully contested.

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