Over the Easter weekend, in a social setting, I found myself in a conversation with a lady of roughly my own vintage which touched upon the problems of ageing and dealing with elderly relatives. It all sprang from her inevitable enquiry as to how my surviving elderly parent was – a query necessarily complicated by the obvious fact that most people who have reached in their eighth or ninth decade are going to be prey to issues to do with the ageing process both physically and mentally.
Put simply, once any human being has reached a certain point, the only way is the road towards decrepitude. No matter how hard the individual works, how diligently he or she strives to keep themselves as fit as possible, the best result they can hope for is that of applying the handbrake to a degree as they descend the slippery slope.
I don’t find such exchanges particularly upsetting because, for me, they are simply addressing essential elements of the human condition.
We all come across them in some form or another in our lives – most often perhaps in the context of our own families (it would be strange if this was not the case) – and so I have no difficulty in raising, or responding to, them if invited to do so, or indeed if the situation seems appropriate.
There are two qualifying factors to this attitude. The first is that every person, every family, has a different way of coping with these issues. Nobody has exclusivity upon the right or best way to approach terminal illness, or physical decline, or indeed dealing with an elderly relative. One man’s meat is another’s poison – and so on. One should respect that.
Secondly, quite often an individual’s approach to some of these ‘difficult’ subjects is coloured by their belief (or not) in God and – if they are religious – their particular brand (whether light and ‘laid back’, zealous, evangelical or ‘literal’) of faith. Plus, of course, different religions – and different cultures – may have quite different attitudes towards illness, decline, mortality and even how to react to death.
A good starting point, especially for someone like me who has no faith, is usually to be both mindful of these variants and respectful of them.
During my weekend conversation with the aforementioned lady – comparing notes upon our own elderly relatives, hers both deceased and one of mine still alive – we found ourselves as one in believing that the ‘quality of life’ was of key importance.
Warming to the theme, I then (without thinking too much, but that’s my style) went down the side-road of saying that, having seen at first hand what it was like for someone to reach their nineties, I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to reach that milestone myself.
My fellow conversationalist seemed somewhat horrified by my comment. Why had I said it?
I replied that because, generally-speaking, I was a bit of a fatalist.
Again, my fellow conversationalist seemed upset. What did I mean and why was I saying this?
[At this point I twigged, as I should have previously because I already knew it, that she possessed a strong religious faith and sensed that we were now in danger of skating perilously close to a clash on whether or not there was a God and similar matters of potential disagreement and contention.]
The irony was that ultimately we were about to agree on the principle that ‘life was for the living’, but from completely different perspectives.
My free-style ‘Whatever will be will be’ angle was born of the belief that ‘This is all there is’ and frankly, if by ageing beyond a certain point my quality of life was going to be poor – and this was both for my own sake as well as that of those who loved or cared for me – I’d be just as happy not to live that long.
This did not go down well. Clearly my companion believed in the principle that sanctity of life was an absolute – and possibly also that God had a purpose (and a hand) in everything, presumably including everyone’s personal longevity, whether that involved a ‘good’ quality of life … or the opposite.
There was no way I was going to steer our chat towards the thorny subject of whether there was a God – or indeed an afterlife.
On any day, any of us could be quietly going about our own business, set off to walk 300 yards to buy our morning newspaper … and be hit by a truck. Thus ‘living for the moment’ – or the old chestnut “Carpe Diem!” [“Seize the day!”] famously championed by the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society starring Robin Williams – was a worthy and valuable watchword. None of us had any idea when we’d meet our end, so it was important to do things today, not postpone them to some far-off time in the future.
My companion preferred to believe that everything that happened in life was somehow pre-ordained (chosen) by God. Frankly, I didn’t see this as being too far different from my adherence to what I call fatalism but I refrained from pointing this out.
The following morning – and I blame myself for not appreciating it at the time – I had a ‘lightbulb’ moment which seemed to explain much about our conversation.
My wife died of a heart attack some twenty years ago. The lady I had been talking to was her sister. Plainly her way of ‘dealing’ with her passing was different to mine. It obviously made more sense to her that it was part of some master plan of God’s than that it was simply a random act of Fate.
I guess I should not have been surprised by this. When human beings seem to die before their time – sometimes well before – the ‘unfairness’ of it demands some explanation, or (particularly for those left behind) requires one.
Sometimes when touring the battlefields and cemeteries of World War One, and contemplating the numbers and youth of those who died in that conflict – now represented before me by rows and rows of neat gravestones stretching into the distance – I too succumb to a strong sense that ‘Surely the loss of all these young lives cannot have been without purpose …’.