The fight for Mary Feilding Guild

In 1997 at the first – and only – European conference on advocacy in later life in Dublin a team turned up from Lyon in France. There was a sociologist from the university, the manager of a care home and a resident of that home. They represented three parts of an experimental process – evaluation, delivery and engagement – to devolve aspects of care home governance to its residents. The resident, whose name I don’t remember, was in her eighties and had lived in the home a long time. I formed the impression she had moved in during an episode of acute depression and had chosen not to leave. She spoke confidently and independently of her colleagues during a genuinely multi-faceted presentation.

Such projects, although rarely cited as evidence of anything that might be described as a movement, have a long history. On the whole it is probably wisest to associate them with a type of facility whose intake is relatively privileged in class terms. Such settings are increasingly rare in the UK where residential care is now associated with frailty, very advanced age and a limited remaining time-span – my mother, who died in 2004, survived for only six months in the home she entered the previous autumn at the age of 88. But they remain of great importance as one strand of a conversation we should be having about the future of communal care, here in the UK and everywhere else.

Over the last twenty years or so the Mary Feilding Guild home in Highgate, north London, has come to an increasing prominence. Life there, with its collegial and humanistic emphasis, was vividly described and discussed in the writings of the writer, editor and broadcaster Diana Athill who died in 2019 at the age of 101. And, as Athill makes clear, she decided to move in following the active encouragement of another former resident, Rose Hacker, who, as a centenarian and former psychotherapist, had for some years maintained a life as a public speaker and columnist in the Camden New Journal. Throw in the socialist and anti-nuclear campaigner, Hetty Bower, who continued to march at the forefront of national and local demonstrations while a resident of the home and you have evidence of a coherent community shaped more by the will and intention of its residents than is conventionally the case.

It therefore comes as something of a shock and a grim reminder of the limits of elder-power (in an era purportedly dominated by the influence of the old at the ballot box) that the home is to be closed and its residents evicted by the end of next month. The last report from the Care Quality Commission was good, the management having made some changes in response to the previous one. The insights gained from the inspectors’ interviewees are touching and convincing. No doubt there are difficulties in resourcing and maintaining such a facility in a Victorian building. Ultimately, though, there may just be too much money to be made from a site in ‘what remains the world’s leading wealth destination.’

According to my MP, Catherine West, the current group are aged between 85 and 104. Despite widening inequality in later life, the decremental impact of earlier life-stage events and the inflections of gender and ethnicity, it is at these latest stages of the life-course that a spirit of age solidarity must kick in and prevail. Francis Beckett has written about the situation in The Guardian and David Hencke has written a highly critical profile of the owners. But the residents’ campaign needs much more help and support. This is not just a drama facing the genteel and highly educated: it is part of the wider crisis we face with adult social care in a world of casino capitalism. I hope my fellow gerontologists will follow Catherine’s admirable lead in condemning this outrageous and appalling decision and challenge the uncaring tyranny of the market. Her petition can be found here.