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Auntie Milly and me: why everyone needs a best friend 60 years older than them

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Stylist’s Sejal Kapadia on why the greatest advice, wisdom and friendship she's ever had came from an elderly neighbour. 

Remember that terrifying old man in Home Alone? Whenever Kevin McCallister sees him his jaw hits the floor and he runs in the opposite direction with his hands flailing by his sides.

But when he finds himself sitting next to him in a church, he learns he’s not big, bad and scary after all. He’s actually warm-hearted and full of wisdom. 

Kevin might be a fictional seven-year-old, but he’s not so different from how many of us approach the elderly.

We may offer a silver-haired woman a seat on the train, but we're less likely to engage in a conversation with an octogenarian we’re not related to. A lonely old man in John Lewis’ Christmas advert may trigger pools of tears at our desks, but we'll briskly rush past him on the street without a flinch. 

It’s at this time of year we’re asked to change our ways and reach a helping hand to some of the two million people over the age of 75 who live alone in Britain (1.5 million of these are women). The older generation is a group we’ve come to pass by, rather than take notice of; a clan we’ve come to pity, not necessarily look up to; a generation we see as ‘them’, not an older and wrinkly version of ‘us’.

I’m just as guilty as everyone for hastily overtaking an elderly driver, rushing my grandmother off the phone because I’m in the middle of pressing work (even though it’s nothing more urgent that my usual day-to-day tasks) or putting off volunteering my time to help the older folks on my street. 

Sejal with her sisters, mother and Auntie Milly on her 1st birthday

Sejal with her sisters, mother and Auntie Milly on her 1st birthday

But this Christmas I would give anything to sit with a glass of mulled wine and talk to one 96-year-old woman in particular. She was my neighbour, my mentor and great friend. One of those irreplaceable people who only come around once in a lifetime. 

My parents met Auntie Milly long before they had me, when they moved into the house next door to hers.

When they came to view the property, she was perched on her front lawn tending to her hydrangeas. I imagine she gave them one of her big hearty waves - gardening glove still on, bits of soil flying into the air. She never "gave a damn" about what people thought of her and that made her a confidant, brilliant and hilarious woman.

They immediately struck up a friendship and a few years later Auntie Milly became my mother’s right-hand-woman, helping her to juggle the three new members of the family - me, my twin and our four-year-old sister.

As a toddler, she was the bosom I would cuddle into and the face that would peak over through the fence and say "Hi" on a summer's day.

When I was a child, she ‘ate’ my mud pies and humoured my impromptu after-school fashion shows in her living room. But as I matured, so did our friendship.

Christmas morning for the Kapadias was spent at Auntie Milly's house

Christmas morning for the Kapadias was spent at Auntie Milly's house

When I needed advice, someone to rant to or just a place to sit quietly as a teenager, I would slip out the back door of my house, walk through a little gate in the garden and step into Auntie Milly’s kitchen.

She told me stories about growing up on a farm in Norfolk, hating her job as a cleaning maid in a manor house and slapping the face of a horrible manager who always talked down to her. She may have had very little in her pocket, but she was adamant to move to London to carve out a more exciting life for herself.

Stories like this gave me the gumption and drive to push for a career that made me bubble with passion and pride.

I also learnt the concept of generosity and selflessness from her.

It's a unanimous trait among her generation who experienced the enormities of World War II. In one hand, they were asked to give up their pots, pans and iron gates to be melted for weapons, and in the other hand their brothers, fathers and partners. When life turns into a warped dream like that, anything after it is a bonus. 

Anytime anyone needed anything she would reply with a firm "You can have it". There was never a speck of possessiveness, privilege or greediness.  

But perhaps her greatest lesson was that life doesn’t have to be cookie-cut to be wonderful, and it never is.

Auntie Milly's son died early in life (I’m going to say this in my whisper voice because it still doesn’t feel right talking about it: he in fact committed suicide) but she and her husband, Uncle Bob, showed no bitterness. They had each other, they had us, and loneliness was not something she was going to give in to. For her, it was just how life turned out and she pushed through it as best she could. 

The strength she presented throughout her life floors me to this day.

The comforts of an older friend were brought to life by 1993's Mrs Doubtfire

The comforts of an older friend were brought to life by 1993's Mrs Doubtfire

The UK's aging population (in 2008 there were 3.2 people of working age for every person of pensionable age), means my friendship with an elderly neighbour isn't unique. 

From the age of four, Stylist's Sarah Biddlecombe would sneak out of her house and go to Margaret and Arthur's house, her elderly neighbours across the road, for breakfast. They taught her that happy relationships can exist when her parents began the process of divorce.

"They couldn't have the one thing they wanted the most - children - and yet they were so content with just each other for their whole lives," says Sarah. "Between my parents, step-parents and ex-step-parents there are a lot of divorces in my family and I am extremely grateful to have spent so much time when I was younger with a genuinely happily married couple. They were my role models."

Kimisha Mistry, a business analyst from Bradford is still in touch with Auntie Irene, an elderly neighbour she lived next door to us for 15 years. From cooking tips to advice when her grandfather was terminally ill in hospital, Auntie Irene has always been her go-to for support in life. 

Society would say Auntie Milly needed me in her old age.

But just like Sarah, Kimisha and even Kevin, it was I who needed her the most.

Visit ageuk.org.uk to find out how you can help elderly people in your area.

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