I was talking with my cousin yesterday about our surviving parents, who by chance happen to live quite close to one another – her mother is in her ninety-third year and my father approaching his 90th birthday.
Both high-achievers in their heyday, they are still relatively ‘on the ball’ and remain respected members of their local communities. We got in touch because my cousin, who had come to visit her mother for the weekend, left me a text message to register that she had heard my father was temporarily in hospital and offering to help and/or come and visit.
As I laid out on our telephone call the complexities of what had been a long and at times frustrating day, largely due my father’s stubbornness and unwillingness to listen to medical and other advice, my cousin had plenty of sympathy and understanding to share.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “… We’ve all been there before [referring to her own tribulations with her mother] – the thing is, your Dad’s not coping very well with growing old, is he?”
I thought that quite a profound off-the-cuff remark even as she said it, but the more so now that I have had nearly twelve further hours to contemplate it.
Whilst it is possible that, to a greater or lesser extent, she was specifically referring to the similarity in personality of our sibling relations prompted by genes and family upbringing, it seems to me that the comment quite probably also applies not only to all elderly people but to all their families as well.
The fact is that – should anybody be fortunate enough to survive into extreme old age (say 85-plus) – there is a degree to which learning to live with the ever-developing infirmities of the ageing process is harder to endure for those who in their pomp were high-achievers and/or dynamic decision takers (used to be in control of themselves and their immediate environment) than it is for those who were perhaps possessed of lesser ambition, drive and career development.
If you have basically been an alpha male or female all your active life, getting to grips with being no longer at the centre of attention and power, having to accept that you can no longer spring into action and sort any problem out in and/or can no longer be quite as independent as you have been for the past seventy years or so, is clearly going to be a bit of a wrench.
By the same token, if you’ve been a middling sort of person – comparatively happy to bumble along, more passive, easy-going and most of the time content to go with the flow – it is likely that ‘managing’ your own decline will be, if not a doddle, at least something which will not be quite as frustrating as it might be.
“Raging against the dying of the light” is a fine thing, indeed one to be encouraged, but not if it means you’re going to be a fool to yourself and/or place yourself in harm’s way, whether by deliberate act or simple omission.
Meanwhile the implications for those around you – particularly family – are manifold. If you pay too much respect to your aged’s previous status and strong personality, mindful of not wishing to offend or restrict his or her independence unduly or before this is absolutely essential … and then your subject then has an unfortunate injury or accident … you may risk being criticised by other friends and family for not intervening sooner.
You can spot the symptoms of this a mile off, even before they become overt [“Why doesn’t your father had a live-in carer? In my view he ought to have had one at least a year ago …”], but by then you’re already walking a tightrope between the stage where you have been proposing exactly that regularly for up to 12 months but hitherto accepted the brush-off responses (Whether they be “Don’t be ridiculous!” right through to “Thanks for the concern, but I don’t think I’m really at that stage yet”) … and where you ought to have stepped in with an ultimatum and/or a concerted attempt to wrestle control of his/her life by imposing one.
(Or trying to).
All ages of life are tough, but at my stage of life I’m beginning to think that things certainly don’t get any easier if and as you reach your dotage.