Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Letter to an unknown future


I haven't posted for a while, not because nothing was happening, but because I didn't know what to say.

Two weeks ago my father-in-law was taken suddenly, seriously ill. He is slowly on the recovery road now, but is still in intensive care and has to face yet more obstacles to daily life once he is back to some sort of normality - compounded by the fact that he is also registered blind. In addition, he is the main carer for my chronically ill mother-in-law. I don't really want to say much else about this, as it's not really my story to tell; but if you are of a praying persuasion, we would appreciate your efforts on our behalf. Anyway...

This all dredges up the dreaded issue of aging again. So many of us fear old age, for a variety of reasons - the fear of pain and disability; the fear of the unknown, and eventually of death. But I guess one of the main issues is that of a loss of self. Depression is common in the years immediately following retirement, then tends to be less prevalent again; then becomes more common in the older population, late 70's and 80's. And no wonder, when faced with the catalogue of aging signs and symptoms, along with the side effects from whatever cocktail of drugs their doctors select. Deteriorating vision and hearing can cause individuals to feel increasingly cut off from their surroundings and contacts. Memory loss further detatches and debilitates. And along with all this comes the sense of losing personhood - that self image we all carry, stuck at age 20, 30, 40...

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
 - Laurence Binyon

As faculties diminish, assistance is needed. But first one has to ask for help, which is no easy thing. The aging person may be beholden to family, or to strangers; neither rests easy. To have to ask, to have the thing done badly or just not how you want it, and then to have to be grateful through gritted teeth... none of this comes naturally. And all to be surrounded by endlessly cheerful carers who treat you as if you were three years old. An old friend of mine used to refer to the 'Pop School of Nursing' - as in, 'We'll just pop your clothes off, pop you into a gown, pop you on the couch and then I'll pop off and get the doctor.' Sometimes I hear myself saying it; and cringe.

One of the things that frightens me is the tendency for older people to lose distinguishing features. Hair colour, waistlines, jawlines all slowly melt into the familiar generic Grandmother / Grandfather 'look'. Fortunately society does not 'expect' this so much, or so early, as it once did; there is no longer the need to adopt the same clothes and shoes, hairstyle and glasses as every other septa / octogenarian. As I look into the mirror and notice the slackening skin and wiry white hairs, the poem 'When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple' goes through my head. I fear I may relish the transformation into an eccentric grumpy old woman (a process that has very much begun already); and the very first nurse /carer who talks to me in that slightly high pitched nicey-nicey voice, telling me to 'Mind how I go, dearie' or similar will be nicely but firmly told to Sod Off. At the same time, aging brings the loss of loved ones - and old friends cannot be replaced. A few years into my marriage I realised I spent time almost exclusively with people who only knew me as married, as my older friends lived further away, and  the associated loss of a sense of self made me sad; how much worse to arrive at a place where no-one remembers you young. Photos merely underline the passing of time, rather than truly recalling the person you once were. perhaps it will be different for this digital generation, their every move captured on video. Old friends are the ones who know all the stages that brought you to this place, but still love you; who laugh with you and at you, dragging out old jokes whose mere mention provokes helpless laughter. Those old friends are particularly precious in my life; they have made me who I am. Without their company, I would be diminished; and would fear being forgotten.


In the meantime, I shall try my hardest to remember that every individual, at whatever age we happen to meet, holds the same potential for sadness, joy, laughter, quirkiness, anger and grief as the rest of us; that age is not a predictor of how anyone will react to any given situation, but that the general level of garbage that surrounds the aging process may increase the likelihood that it won't be good, at least not if the conversational opener is 'I just popped in to see how you are today, dearie'. That inside each person, regardless of age, exists a unique story, that affords a unique outlook on life.


If only we all had the time and patience to listen to those stories.

 

2 comments:

blue hands said...

Oh yes. Amen to all that.

M xx

bigdaddystevieB said...

TRACEY: This is SO good. Somewhat inevitably, retirement has brought up lots of similar thoughts/emotions/fears/sentiments/challenges for me as far as aging is concerned. Perhaps in recognition of “retirement reflections”(?), I recently read Julie Neuberger’s book “Not Dead Yet” (picked up for two quid in “The Last Book Shop” on Park Street, as you do!) – which challenges the way old age is perceived and how we treat the “elderly” (ie. me!). Thought-provoking…. just like your posting.
Very many thanks for this.
Sxx