12 December 2011
Don't get old, although the alternative doesn't bear thinking about
There's been a lot of talk recently about how the elderly are treated in hospital, in care homes or even in their own homes. The news tends to focus on the neglect or abuse of old people. Often the excuse is lack of staff and lack of money, but surely lack of compassion has to feature somewhere on the list. Kay has recently been doing a work placement on an elderly ward in a hospital and what she has sadly witnessed in a few weeks could fill volumes alone.
It's true that a large proportion of elderly people who need care are suffering from one form of dementia or another and that can make compassionate treatment or care difficult. They are confused, unsure of why they need help in the first place, where they are, cannot feed themelves, cannot get to a toilet in time and sometimes can be violent or depressed. But inside every old person is a young person trying to get out. They were once 16; they were once newly married; they may have been heroes fighting in France or captured in Burma; they were parents; maybe held down responsible jobs; won Nobel prizes; and maybe were the trendsetters in their professions. You wouldn't think so to look at them now, either curled up in a hospital bed or limping down the street, leaning on a stick or zimmerframe with their silent friend - arthritis; wearing a mismatch of genuine vintage clothes from their wardrobe because their meagre pensions barely cover their living costs let alone stretch to new clothes. They complete their look with hearing aids and thick glasses, yet not out of choice - over the years their eyes and ears have seen so much and heard more than you'll ever know, but cruel old age has robbed them of their efficiency. How often have you got annoyed with an old codger in the car in front pootling about at 15mp. But if you had a bad back or couldn't turn your head quickly because of arthritis, you'd be exactly the same. You don't elect to get aches and pains, they just turn up unannounced, more's the pity. Having a car is their only hope of independence, however slow that might be. It is so easy to see the outside shell of an old person, even if you bother to look at that, but not consider what lies within.
My mum (doubled up with arthritis and scoliosis) always says "don't get old, although the alternative doesn't bear thinking about". She jokingly means the alternative would be suicide to avoid getting old. Getting old, God willing, is something that will happen to each and every one of us. Do we want the younger generation to treat us like imbeciles and nuisances one day? I am sixty-one now, but feel just as energetic and young as I did when I was twenty-five. I feel twenty-five on the inside and suspect I always will. (Thankfully, people compliment me that I look ten years younger than I actually am, but even so, the day will come when I don't.)
I'm currently reading Any Human Heart by William Boyd. I had not seen the TV series and my friend, who evidently had seen it, had bought me the book as a birthday present to make up for my serious lapse. I won't give anything away about the story, other than to say it is the lifetime journal of a fictitious twentieth century author, starting in 1906 and finishing in 1991, but yesterday I read the following:
October 1955. To the passport office to collect my new passport, valid for another ten years. ................ These ten-year chunks that are doled out to you in passports are a cruel form of momento mori. How many more new passports will I have? One (1965)? Two (1975)? Such a long way off, 1975, yet your passport life seems all too brief. How long did he live? Well, he managed to renew six passports.
I had never thought of passport renewal in that way before. I have certainly shuddered when I have compared the photo on the last one with the photo on the new one (a few too many laughter lines here, a bit too much grey hair there), but I had never given a single thought about whether I'd need another one, two or three passports to see me out. Measured in passports, our whole life is really quite short. A bit scary, really.