A recent article in the British Medical Journal dealt with the findings of a Singapore-based team of researchers. The results of a survey, carried out by the Singaporese, suggested that regular physical activity “improves physical and mental health, mitigates the risks and effects of chronic diseases, and reduces falls, immobility, dependency and mortality among older adults”.
As part of the survey, the 500 people who took part in the research were asked about their participation in light and heavy housework. Light housework included dish washing, dusting, making beds, ironing or cooking meals. Heavy housework included activities like cleaning windows, washing floors and DIY.
In one part of the survey the researchers concluded that over 65s, who engaged in heavy housework, had 14% higher attention span scores. Those who regularly performed light tasks tested 12% better on memory tests. They also had better leg strength and, by extension, greater protection against falls.
Little of this is surprising. It is well known that physical activity is good for one’s health. Normally we think of this in terms of activities like walking, cycling, swimming or going to the Gym.
We forget that the day-to-day activity of looking after a house also involves a lot of physical activity. Washing dishes or clothes, preparing and cooking food, dusting furniture, vacuuming floors, cleaning sinks and toilets, hanging clothes out to dry and later ironing them require a wide range of skills and bodily exertion. Added to these can be other household activities like painting and decorating, changing bulbs, looking after stoves or other heating systems, dealing with recycling and refuse or taking care of pets. Having a garden adds an even greater variety of activities to everyday household life – planting, digging, weeding, pruning, gathering leaves, mowing and harvesting.
Some people see these as chores and run a mile from them. Men, it is often said, seem to be allergic to many of these tasks though they like well-prepared food, fresh laundry and clean, tidy homes. However, this division on gender lines is unfair because many of these tasks are regularly carried out by men. The real division is between those who are houseproud by nature and those who are not. Personally, I like all these jobs and willingly take them on. I see them as part and parcel of house ownership and they keep me active instead of vegetating in a chair.
Geriatric homes, often designated as care, nursing or retirement homes, play an important role in catering for older people unable to cope on their own. The negative side is the sedentary nature of life in many of these places, where even those who are still active are not allowed do the simplest domestic chores. Instead, they are herded into a common room and parked in front of a flickering TV set. No wonder many people, who previously lived an active and useful life, degenerate very quickly in these expensive antechambers. And why are these unfortunate people infantilised? “Health and Safety regulations”, reply the owners and managers.
Because of an interest in architecture and history, I like to read about the Big Houses in Ireland. Examples of such places in Co Galway include Castlegrove near Tuam, Tyrone House in Kilcolgan, Coole Park near Gort and Castledaly outside Loughrea. One day, while reading about life in these great houses, I came across a new word: “ennui”. I Googled it and discovered that it means “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement”. The word comes from Latin, through French, and originally meant “it is hateful to me”.
Ennui (pronounced “on-wee”) is what many of the residents of the Big Houses suffered from on a daily basis. They had no professions or careers to start with, so lacked the routine of daily work that sustains most people’s lives. And because they were surrounded by staff, who did everything for them, they had nothing to do during the day. Butlers, cooks, chambermaids, laundry maids and waiters took care of household tasks while estate managers, gardeners, stable hands and gamekeepers took care of outdoor activity. Strokestown House in Roscommon, for example, employed over 50 staff members to look after the family and estate. No wonder so many of the “gentry” suffered from ennui or boredom.
In fact, life in many of these Big Houses must have been less than pleasant. Large, stately rooms that may have been quite pleasant during the Summer must have been cold and draughty during the winter. As landlords, these families were cut off from their local neighbourhood by class and religion and depended on visits to, or from, people who lived in other Big Houses. Travel, up to the 20th Century, was difficult and dangerous. Meanwhile their wealth and status depended so much on rack rents and exploiting their tenants. Perhaps the “great” houses were not so great after all.
So maybe we are better off in our little homes, working for a living and looking after the household tasks that the Singaporese research suggests are so good for us – especially as we age.
So, tomorrow it’s up to the attic to bring down all the boxes with last year’s lights and decorations. Then into the Square in Tuam to buy a Christmas tree. Back home it’s out with the saw and pruner to tidy up the branches. Then time to find the base and erect the tree in the living room. Next, the fiddley job of attaching strings of lights and tree decorations. That done it’s out to the shed to find a ladder and the cumbersome task of attaching 1,000 led lights to the gutters around the house … oh the joys and excitement of everyday life in a “bog standard” bungalow. No time for ennui here!