We Should Extend Our Families, Not Our Kitchens

An article by Sandra Parsons reproduced with kind permission of the Daily Mail, Wednesday, May 26, 2010 - Page 15

Going into McDonald's almost any day of the week and you'll find a solitary pensioner nursing a cheap cup of coffee as they watch the world go by. Such scenes apart, the lonely are difficult to spot. An isolated young mother will spend most of her time indoors or at the park. The middle-aged woman whose children have grown up and fled the nest will be at home, at a loss as to how to fill the hours. The teenager who thinks he has no friends will be in his bedroom, staring at his laptop.

According to a disturbing report yesterday by the Mental Health Foundation, almost half of us believe Britain is getting lonelier. A third of us have a close friend or family member who we think is lonely, while four in ten have felt depressed because of loneliness. I'm convinced the main reason for this is the disintegration of the extended family. So, before we start on David Cameron's much-vaunted, but little understood Big Society, I suggest instead we recognise that charity begins at home, and begin encouraging a return to the days when extended families lived together.

Within hours of my mother dying, my husband said to me: 'Your father must come and live with us.' This is because he comes from Serbia, where several generations live together in one family home as a matter of course, and where it is unthinkable to allow any relative to live alone. At my father's request, we are not yet living together all the time. He comes to us for a few weeks and then goes home for a few weeks — so that when he is alone, it is because he chooses to be.

The benefits of this arrangement are great, on several levels — social, economic and emotional. Having a grandparent living with you means that it is almost impossible for any family member to be lonely. A new mother in Serbia is constantly surrounded by doting aunts, cousins and grandparents. There is always someone on hand to soothe a wailing baby, kiss it and entertain it while the mother has a cup of coffee and a break.

It is common for mothers to work while grandma looks after young grandchildren; after all, she lives in the same house. Grandfathers are viewed not as sad old men, but as revered sources of wisdom and authority. This is the way we used to live in Britain, but as we have become more materialistic and in thrall to the cult of the individual, we have gradually lost the benefits of family and community. 

If the local post office or corner shop has closed down and their adult children live far away, it is possible for the elderly to go for days without speaking to anyone. And yet when I told friends that my father was coming to live with us, the reaction from most of them was one of appalled horror, followed by the suggestion that I'm mad or a saint.

The irony is that as we have become more obsessed with our homes, expanding into attics and basements and worshipping at the altar of the so-called family kitchen — not complete without swanky worktops, an island and range oven — so we have become ever more selfish. We might be able to entertain 12 admiring friends to a celebrity chef-inspired Sunday lunch in a spacious, aesthetically pleasing kitchen, but we have forgotten what family living means.

Living as an extended family is rarely the stuff of glossy magazines or artful sitcoms. It means mess, arguments, noise and compromise. It means having the heating on higher than you find comfortable, because your mother-in-law feels the cold. It means biting your tongue because you can't have a blazing row in front of her. 

For children, it means being quiet because Grandpa is having his nap, and constant requests to turn the music down. But it also means they have someone who is not a parent in whom they can confide. They might not take any notice of their mother when she tells them that 380 Facebook friends — or lack of them — means nothing; but a kindly grandparent's memories of teenage trauma may very well strike a chord.


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