Killing Time

Edvard Munch, Between the Clock and the Bed

Killing Time

Bill Hartley, on the weird world of the “Shut In”

Travelling at 49 mph on the bypass (it’s always 49 mph), the Skoda Yeti is heading for the supermarket. This is the vehicle of choice for a certain type of retiree. Squeezing out the maximum fuel economy irrespective of road conditions is a clue to the identity of the driver. Such people reportedly refuse to observe the wide turning circle of an HGV and will squeeze their car through an ever narrowing gap. The lorry driver then has to apply the brakes mid turn and is sometimes left wondering if his 38 tons was even noticed.

Later, Mr Retiree and his wife can be seen in the supermarket, forensically studying the sell by labels on various products, oblivious to the presence of other shoppers. This weekly expedition is likely to be one of the few occasions when the couple will routinely venture further than the local newsagent. Welcome to the world of the Shut In.

The term was originally coined in the US to describe persons who due to illness or gross obesity were confined to their homes. It is, however, as appropriate a description for a section of the British population and where it may ultimately lead isn’t edifying.

Over the past couple of decades, employers have sought to rid themselves of long serving staff. These days, the chances of a career with the same company or organisation are much reduced, unlike earlier generations who via promotion or long service increments accrued good salaries and pension rights. There has been an incentive to get such people off the employee roll and many were only too pleased to take advantage of an early departure, often without thinking about the consequences. Now the children have departed, friendships, if they existed, have fallen away and entertainment is only to be had in the home.

One can see such people (usually male) out before dawn on a winter’s morning making their way to buy a newspaper. It may seem strange that anyone would get out of bed before daylight if they didn’t have to but sadly for some it represents a high point in the day. Daytime television and the accompanying advertising are shaped to their needs; a diet of tedious game shows and antiques trawling, interspersed with ads for funeral insurance and stair lifts.

Having taken early departure from work, the lives of the men in question follow a similar pattern. First, there is the acquisition of the aforementioned Skoda, after which, whether necessary or not, he’ll redecorate the house from top to bottom. Should former colleagues be encountered, expressions such as ‘I’m busier now than I’ve ever been’ or ‘I can’t think how I found time to go to work’ will be heard. But several months down the line, with the house immaculate, everything grinds to a halt.

That visit to the newsagent may have another purpose. One near where I live performs a service for retirees by allowing the collection of prescriptions from its premises. Although life expectancy has increased, quality of life is another matter. The amount and variety of pharmaceuticals prescribed to the over fifties in this rural locality is astonishing. Statins are the drug of choice and once a prescription is issued it is open ended. There is a sense that being permanently on medication is expected and becomes a lifetime habit.

It’s a strange paradox. Two or three generations ago people were required to work until the age of sixty five. Imagine: there were people doing manual jobs, including hewing coal, when ten years older than many around today who left work in their fifties. Back then, people who retired often did so exhausted by their labours or afflicted by industrial illnesses, mostly of the respiratory kind. Little wonder most didn’t enjoy a long retirement.

It is in the domestic setting that the behaviour of the Shut In can be best observed. Life is springing a trap on these people and they drift into it with the alertness of a sleepwalker. They become increasingly disengaged from the outside world. Reduced to the confines of their own home save for the weekly supermarket shop and perhaps the odd ‘day out’, they are preternaturally alert to encroachments, physical and otherwise. Anything is capable of disturbing their equilibrium. Boundary disputes, real or imagined, are common. Where I live, two retired couples, formerly friends, fell out over a section of footpath and now pursue low level guerrilla war against each other. One insists on parking close to the others’ gate and in return his ex-friend places a wheelie bin hard against the vehicle. The feud has even been posted on Facebook. This territoriality can manifest itself in strange ways. One couple set about building a rubbish tip between their garage and a neighbour’s. Evidently they wished to prevent passage between the garages (leading nowhere incidentally) and despite an immaculate garden at the rear were prepared to hoard bags of decomposing garden waste at the front. Supplies of this waste being reduced in the winter months, other materials needed to be gathered and took on a strange kind of artistry. On one occasion a frying pan minus handle was balanced on an old bucket and in the pan lay an ancient electric razor.

The arrival of domestic CCTV has been eagerly adopted by Shut Ins. Security considerations are irrelevant, it is rather the opportunity to extend surveillance right down the road which appeals to them. It further reduces the need to actually emerge. One couple erected a large and sturdy wooden gate at the rear of their property then proceeded to secure it with a couple of hefty padlocks and have never used it.

Another couple endeavoured to keep their wheelie bin immaculate. They sneaked around the village after dark depositing household waste in public litter bins. Interestingly, the husband, a rare example of an escape from Shut In status, used his benefits as a railway pensioner to travel to Edinburgh and back on the train. He never left Waverley Station, but at least the journey took up a large part of the day.

Front gardens are an indicator of the Shut In. it might be supposed that being retired would create ample opportunity for gardening. However, it also constitutes a potential for mess which must be suppressed. This is invariably achieved by blanketing all surfaces, either with gravel or tarmac, sanitised into uniform dullness. Near where I live is a whole row of bungalows identical in their lifelessness.

Female Shut Ins sometimes undergo metamorphosis. Their femininity is abandoned and they adopt a unisex costume of jogging pants and hoodies. Having reached a certain age, they give up any desire to be seen as a woman and enter a world of self-imposed purdah where their style of dress is designed for comfort and nothing else. Their husbands can be even more sartorially challenged, particularly in the summer months, when washed out T shirts and shorts are de rigeur.

We hear a great deal today about how the elderly experience loneliness. But isolation doesn’t always occur spontaneously. Sadly, the Shut Ins spend many years creating the conditions in which they find themselves alone and struggling to reconnect with the world.

BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service. He writes from Yorkshire

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