Here’s a question for you. What is it reasonable to require of old people?
Let’s agree from the outset – old people are people as well as old; so that means each one is an individual, and one cannot just lump them together.
But one makes allowances for children. When the boundaries are pushed and the millionth question asked, when the defiance grates and the melt-downs become wearisome, when night after night at three in the morning the bringer of unwelcome tidings appears in the moonlight to announce a wet bed – the mother reminds herself, this is only a child. Don’t pick up a rolling pin and batter it to death. Try to be understanding.
In the same way, one can listen to the interminable sanctimonious utterances on the subject of “When I was young …”, “When I grew up …”, “My generation …”, “During the war …”, “In my day …” - and all the other yawn-worthy stuff – with a mental note to retain the pinned-on smile, refrain from slumping in an attitude of death staring at the clock and wondering if it has . . . actually . . . stopped.
Do you watch TV dramas?
Most of them explore the familiar landscape of human reality, touching on experiences that most of us share.
One of these is the Bolshy Teenager – the flouncing out, the rude remark flung over the shoulder, the coldness and rudeness, the unreasonable tantrums and general refusal to co-operate. But, I kid you not, none of that ever happened to me. Not once that I can recall. Oh, my children were argumentative at times – but never unreasonably so. They stood up for their point of view – insisted on it, even; but why not? I cannot recall one single occasion when they spoke disrespectfully to me, or even unkindly. Well, there was that occasion when one of them described my hair as looking like a used mop; still, she was having a bad day; and she was right.
But another stereotype from the TV dramas is the Surly Old Parent. The sour, critical mother, finding fault. The cantankerous old father, contemptuous and cruel.
There are things to take into consideration. Old people often feel unwell, and tired. Some of them – my father came into this category – deal with this by quietness and withdrawal. My father, in the last couple of years of his life, slept a lot. He went out once a week to see the other old men at the pub. He drove to the supermarket every day and ate lunch in the café there. Apart from that, he stayed at home. He stopped attending family gatherings – even funerals. He enjoyed feeding the birds, watching Country File, and reading the paper. And he dozed. His manner was kind. He never said a lot. He and I rarely saw one another, never wrote except at Christmas, and hardly ever spoke on the phone. That was not new, really. In the whole of my life he showed little interest in me, never read my books – certainly never bought one copy of anything I wrote. He lived and died without knowing me. I mean, he would possibly have recognized me in the street, though I can’t be entirely sure of that because a lot of people don’t. I’m a bit vague and foggy; not all that present, somehow.
But he and I, we were alike: the default mode for both of us, “Withdraw. Wander off.”
But these old people caricatured in TV dramas – they are, it’s true, evident in abundance. Dismissively belittling their children, rude and thoughtless, critical of everyone they know. Comparing one sibling against another, scornfully. Unrelenting contempt. So unkind.
What is it? Is it an accumulation of poison from bad diet and lack of exercise? Is it that thing of synapses in the brain disabling the inner editor? Is it habit set hard? Is it a sense of increasing powerlessness? Are they just world-weary – tired and achey and defeated?
And what is it reasonable – and realistic – to expect? Is it (perish the thought) inevitable? A sort of sclerosis?
I think of a friend whose mother developed Alzheimers in old age. My friend found herself in the unwelcome role of inspector, checking the fridge for bad food and the closet for soiled clothes, much to her mother’s outrage. Their relationship worsened. Eventually, her mother arrived at the state of health leaving no other viable option than residential nursing care; and then things began to improve between the two of them. My friend became the welcome visitor instead of the impertinent busy-body.
Might it be the case, then, that instead of the greater intimacy which (at first look) increasing vulnerability seems to require, maintaining a certain distance is the way to maintain respect and courtesy?
What do you think?