Thursday, 22 January 2015

Pitfalls of growing old

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?


Jenna said...

How lovely that you should be writing this just a few days after my--I can hardly bring myself to type it--57th trip around the sun. Probably a function of the idolization of youth, I've begun to feel written off. At best, quaint. No one thinks I'm wise or that my accumulated experience is at all worthy of even obligatory attention.

And then those same scorners have the gall to wonder, often aloud, why they keep screwing stuff up.

Pen Wilcock said...


We are the same age.


BLD in MT said...

I cannot claim to know what I would do if my mother's mind were failing her. I'd want to help and look out for her, but can see how this would make me a bother to her, too. But, I do know that I am willing to be patient and kind with the very young and the very old in a way I am not with those in between. That is just the way it is. With kids they don't know any better. With the elderly I figure they've earned it. I've met both those who withdraw--like my grandfather--and those who are nasty grumps like those portrayed on sitcoms--like a certain relative who will not be named. As you so wisely noted it is a tricky thing when we speak in generalizations as we're all so unique. I will never forget though when the little blue haired lady went on and on and on about how "ugly" my hair was and how I "would be so pretty" if I had nicer hair. That a woman's hair should be her "crowning glory" and all that. I was polite when I really wanted to say, "Hey, I don't think your blue curls are all that great myself!" But, she was a little, old lady. I couldn't do that. ;) Very thought provoking post, Pen. I shall continue to muse on it. Have a great day.

Pen Wilcock said...

Gosh. On the other hand, let me say (in case you change your mind), I think you'd look simply lovely with blue curls, Beth.

;0) xx

gretchen said...

my mother was a difficult person to begin with, hyper-critical, hated everything, found fault with wherever she was living (until she moved and then the new place became the city from hell and the old place was wonderful!) she refused to make friends after a certain point, saying 'i'm too old for all that.' when she was diagnosed with alzheimer's, some of her behaviour became easier to understand but also more challenging. she denied that there was anything wrong, refused my help and was adamant that no one was going to come into her home to help out either. when her condition became so bad that we simply had no choice but to put her in a care center, we had to do it by trickery and stealth. amazingly, she acclimated and, as in your friend's example, suddenly i was a welcome visitor instead of that pesky daughter who was always telling her what to do. at the same time, i was also a care-giver for an agency, working with elders with dementia. so i was getting it at home and at work. still, i loved my elderly clients, loved working with them, loved hearing their stories (even for the 20th time) and was so happy to have a job that made a real difference in their lives. mostly i found that elders kind of followed a pattern; if they were sweet adults, they became sweet elders. if they were crabby and critical, they became more so. now that i'm an elder myself (going to be 66 soon), i can feel myself slowing down, becoming a bit more set in my ways but also becoming more contented and loving being retired. i hang out with a bunch of elderly nuns several mornings a week now (they're all older than i am!) and enjoy their precious company. there are certainly pitfalls to growing older (mostly health issues) but there are great blessings as well! by the way, did you see the movie 'amour'? it was sobering and was far too much like many situations that i dealt with in my work.

BLD in MT said...

I failed to mention in my earlier comment that this was back when I had dreadlocks. And I'll have to ponder the blue curls. I have a friend with pink hair that suits her well, but I am so much a natural-type gal.... :)

Pen Wilcock said...

That's most interesting, Gretchen. I'd love to meet your elderly nuns! It sounds as though they must be ageing in a mellow fashion for you to choose to spend several mornings a week with them.

As I read what you wrote, it caused me to wonder if stress and fear contribute to people's crabbiness as they age. I imagine that before your mother's diagnosis, for a long time she must have been muddling along, covering her tracks when she lost things or made mistakes - and maybe that's why she didn't want anyone in her home; perhaps she knew things were getting out of hand and was frightened of it being discovered. Who can say?

And I wonder, if a person is one of the crabby and critical people, and doesn't like that in themselves, what is to be done to remedy it so that old age isn;t a descent into a worsening form? Is it just temperament and inevitable? Or is it acquired habit?

kat said...

Hi Pen, you know what my journey was with Mum and I wouldn't change the choice I made to care for her at home, but it puts a great strain on a relationship - even one as close as ours was. I often felt I was dealing with a child, rather than an adult, and old resentments could and did surface regularly. I tried to be mindful of the fact that I couldn't really know how she was, couldn't know her pain, confusion, level of tiredness, only my own. This helped me be patient and forgiving when i needed to - but NOT always. I think each old person carries the accumulation of their lives about with them and, perhaps, often react with a set of habitual responses, perhaps unthinking ones, too weary to enquire further of their actions. We won't know until we're there - let's hope we have enough memory left to remember how not to be!
And yes, those horrid teenagers on the telly bear no resemblance to my experience; they make me sad as I wonder if they encourage teenagers to be that way, believing that it's the norm :-( xx

Pen Wilcock said...

I think your strategy of having her close by you, while each still having your own dwelling place, was very sensible. There is this vein of kindness flowing down your family, which is very beautiful. x

gretchen said...

you make a very good point, pen. in my work with the elderly, it's been my observation that fear is definitely a factor for many if not most elders. there can be so many reasons for this but the two that come up the most are the fear of losing control (your life, your decisions, your money, your bladder!) and fear of change. the world seems to become unrecognisable and very frightening. when i was up at the convent yesterday morning, i put some of this out for discussion with the nuns, wondering if their years of spiritual discipline were a help in dealing with and accepting the limitations of age. sr. wilma, who will be 97 in april and who is always a voice of sense and wisdom, gently pointed out that the nuns don't have to worry about who will care for them or how they will pay for their care. that alone gives them a measure of serenity that many elderly don't have. would that we could assure all our elders that they would be lovingly and adequately cared for. that might go a long way toward alleviating their fear and stress.

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes! I have long thought that it's wise to get one's life lined up with a track that can accommodate old age - in one's late 70s/80s may be too old to change comfortably. So, to be near one's family, or on a level walk to the shops or near a bus stop, and get in the groove of that lifestyle, while still in 50s or 60s, could make the changes of old age easier, because there won't be those external changes to cope with at the same time as the internal ones.

Suze said...

I have been a full time carer for both of my parents since late 2008. My mother is a difficult personality and other have told me so. Dad can be difficult but is medicated because of his Alzheimer's disease. My days are spent in a muddle of extreme tiredness and being constantly reprimanded and corrected. Since my brother's suicide there is little choice. In the middle of last year dad asked to live with the nuns. He has a place in a wonderful environment but hates it. So we regularly "bust him out" for a few hours.

I have told my children that if I develop dementia that I want them to place me in a home. I do not want them living the life I have led. The major problem is that while I have been a carer I have been deregistered as a nurse and have very little fall back upon. I am currently 52 but my father had already shown signs of this disease by this age and I have many health issues.

Rebecca said...

For some reason, God has given me a special "heart" for the elderly. I am saddened by the disregard and lack of understanding with which many of them are treated. I wish there was more I could do to help assuage their fears, assist them with their daily tasks, clear the confusion they frequently feel, explain the paperwork they must deal with, and LISTEN. Just listen to them talk - and yes, repeat themselves. My mother's current needs are more and more like that of an infant, but unlike an infant who will mature and gain life skills, she is going int he opposite direction, but needs similar attention.

While one can plan for growing old and THINK you've got it covered, sometimes the choices aren't ours to make.

Pen Wilcock said...

Such an interesting pair of comments (Suze's and Rebecca's) - I found both of them in my inbox at the same time, and have read them over and over.

To take out two sentences from each and set them side by side:
"My days are spent in a muddle of extreme tiredness and being constantly reprimanded and corrected."
"I am saddened by the disregard and lack of understanding with which many of them are treated."

It really does seem that it is impossible to generalise. To speak about "the elderly" is similar to speaking about "people".

For myself, I know that as I grow older I have the same oddities and deficiencies I always had, but I'm adding to the originally batch with every year that goes by.
It's as though I began life as an Uncarved Block and the mallet of circumstance and the chisel of time have tap-tap-tapped away at me, gradually revealing Michelangelo's . . . Shrek.

Suze said...

I guess I should have added I have been studying dementia at university level. It is easy for me to work an eight hour shift and to maintain patience etc and even enjoy the situations that evolve. But 24/7 is a different story and so far I have very little respite from my mother. This definitely flavours my lifestyle.

Pen Wilcock said...

That's the thing, isn't it. In the vulnerable stages of a life - e.g. infancy, illness, bereavement, old age - people should be held and carried by a community, rather than become the responsibility of one individual.

Pilgrim said...

I laughrd out loud at Shrek. Also tired here. So thank you.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx