We’re programed to fear old age. As if by losing our youthful virility we become less as people. Certainly, as we become less mobile and able to fend for ourselves, being dependent on others is quite a scary prospect.
And, as gay men, old age seems to present us with all the horrors at once. Not only our cherished looks, perky muscles and perfectly buffed skin will be lost, but the independence we’ve sustained living outside the norm.
But the only inevitable, if we’re lucky enough to live a long life, is to grow old. And if you don’t have money or a wide social group of friends who will gather round you, things can get pretty lonely out there.
My own father, a militaristic Victorian parent – part bully, part charmer – was left a widower in his mid-80s. And despite years of estrangement, I couldn’t see him left lonely and helpless. So I moved to spend a few months with him, teaching him to cook and look after himself. It was the inspiration for my book Cooking without Recipes¬; the old boy wanted a quick way to learn to cook his favorite dishes without following someone else’s rules. There was no shortage of carnage in the kitchen but we got there in the end.
Like so many men of his generation, he had spent lots of time in the kitchen but didn’t really know what went on in there apart from turning up for meals. This is the same for millions of old people who end up alone at the end of their lives. They are either left with nobody to cook for or have nobody to cook for them. The community and conversation of the kitchen table evaporates and eating becomes a solitary function of necessity.
I was made acutely aware of how life works by an older gay friend, who has now died, but always told me that ‘you get back from life what you put into it’. This wasn’t some sort of holier-than-thou aphorism but a completely pragmatic formula for living. And it’s one I have always carried with me.
So when I was putting together my latest business – a pop-up restaurant set in an old car repair workshop in London called the PipsDish Kitchen – it was really important to me to think about how we could do something for the community where we are based. I’ve run lots of projects in the past for young people through Agency East, the social enterprise of which I am a director. But this time I wanted to do something at the other end of the story.
So when we opened we also launched our ‘Kitchen Table’ project with Age UK. We are often able to feed far more people than those who pay to eat at our supperclub-style dinners and events. Recognizing that the leftover food costs us nothing, it represented a real opportunity to give something back. So every week a group of local elderly come over to the garage, enjoy each other’s company and eat lunch with us. Some of these occasions are so much fun and there’s always a story about someone’s history or a dish from childhood explained.
Over the summer we had some Jubilee celebrations with the same age group and we’re capturing the stories of some of these participants for an online radio project being run by Age UK called ‘Wireless’.
In the spirit of ‘you get back what you put in’, as GLBT people we need to care for our community and be prepared for what happens as we get old. Stonewall has recently reported a worrying increase of bullying and abuse from public sector carers who don’t respect our sexuality or gender orientation. We can’t stay young forever and lest old age be a shock, now’s as good a time as any for us to think about what we can do to help someone we know who is in their twilight years. Who knows? We might even learn something useful!
Philip Dundas is author of Cooking Without Recipes and founder of PipsDish Kitchen.