THE TIMES – Feburary 23, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Last week’s television highlight, for those of us addicted to the desperate goings-on in Wisteria Lane, was seeing the sober-suited working mother Lynette Scavo transform herself into a reckless sexpot — bedroom hair, bustier, “shakin’ her ass” as she strutted along the bar counter — in a last-ditch attempt to out-floozy her demon (and, significantly, childless) female boss. Ever since my favourite Desperate Housewife returned to work, leaving her hitherto breadwinning husband to do the childrearing, we have seen her performing ever more frantic cartwheels to prove that she can be a high-performing advertising executive while still, somehow, being a supermom (or some sort of mom) to her three children.

There should be something ludicrously anachronistic in 2006 about her daily juggling battle; perhaps the one nod to modernity being that the boss of the agency is a woman, who is now insisting that Lynette accompanies her for after-hours drinking and dirty-dancing to prove her commitment to the job. But for all the brave talk in the past decade about family-friendly policies and work-life balance, women are still apparently so fearful about being penalised at work if they dip out to have children that we now have, to quote a front-page weekend headline, a “UK baby shortage (that) will cost £11 billion”.

According to a new study published by the Institute for Public Policy Research, we are on the brink of a demographic crisis with a shortage of children born to support future elderly dependents. Oh great. So now we league of fretters have another Big Worry to add to the list of international conflict, ecological disaster and, er, bird flu: the spectre of the swollen ranks of the Baby Boom Generation becoming Generation Z (for Zimmer Frame) threatening to capsize society as we know it.

I have some experience of dealing with Gen Z as my mother was 32 when she gave birth to me (a year older than I was when I had my first son), on her second marriage to my father, who was 42. He died when he was 75, having had chronic arthritis for almost as long as I remember. My mother died ten years later, at the same age, of breast cancer, which had first struck when I was 8.

The final year of her decline was a distressing unmerry-go-round of hospital stays, stints at home with mostly hopeless (and exorbitantly expensive) agency help, an introductory stay at the hospice, and — worst of all — a short-lived period in a nursing home. The idea of being in one filled her with dread but she decided to try it out, partly because if the experience proved tolerable it would give her daughter a break from all the organisation required in looking after her. The nursing home, however, did not prove tolerable.

It was a clean, genteel place, with a pleasant room and french windows opening out onto an attractive courtyard garden. But what my mother feared more than any physical deterioration was the idea of losing her marbles; her wrath when asked if she knew the name of the Prime Minister was something to behold. She managed maybe two or three evenings of dinners, surrounded by fellow diners who were senile for the most part, and this was her idea of living hell. On day four, she asked us — in desperation — to plan her escape, which we accomplished in an early-morning raid.

One of my friends, who once fitted into the demographic of mid-thirties IVF career women — and who now, happily, has two spirited daughters — and I used to fantasise about creating a franchise of retirement homes for the likes of us in our dotage . . . Hip Homes for the Hip-Replaced. There would be a soundtrack of Van Morrison and the smoking of dope as the preferred pain medication; a sort of chain of geriatic hippy communes. Child of my mother that I am, I can’t help feeling that’s all well and good for Generation Zimmer Frame but not so hot for Generation Ga-Ga.

Royal touch from ancient wonders

So those youthful ancients the Rolling Stones performed for free on the weekend at the Copacabana Beach in front of an audience of two million-odd people. I laughed out loud when I read the line “Fans said guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood waved from the penthouse (hotel) balcony occasionally”. It was the word “occasionally” that summoned the image of a Buckingham Palace mechanical and slightly self-conscious royal wave. I hope they gave as good a performance as I witnessed on Sunday from 90-year-old Doris, whose blind eyes sparkled as she warbled her way through Where Did You Get That Hat?

Cruise control

Recent photographs of Tom Cruise, who has been in the newspapers for some reason, has made me think of his role in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s The Firm. He plays a young lawyer who slowly discovers that the pukka firm he has joined is a creepy masonic league of money-filching ne’er-do-wells, and he is in it too deep to get out. The Cruise character eventually derails the firm by detailing his partners’ more innocuous practice of routinely overcharging their clients.

I have spent the past week investigating some routine overcharging that has been going on in my accounts. For instance, for the past five years I have been — unwittingly — paying for two separate insurance companies to protect the contents of my home. The problem with monthly direct debits is that unless you have the time to be super-vigilant, companies change their name and you can easily lose track of what precisely you are paying for.

The good news is that the insurance industry regulators take the position that the clients, who have put themselves in this hapless position, should be reimbursed by both companies to the tune of 50 per cent each. Fortunately, both the Abbey and More Than, between them, are willing to pay back the thousands of pounds I have been doubling up on. Not so Carphone Warehouse, which has been drawing more than £500 from my account over three years despite having documentation that the mobile phone in question was cancelled.

The best offer it has felt it incumbent to come up with is £100 out of “goodwill”.

Is it any wonder that I have become a Grumpy Old Woman?