….but we are all fabulous.
A previous University department I worked in set their students a great assignment – go and interview an older adult – ask them about their experiences, what life is like for them today, who their friends are, what they do etc. and write a report about it. I had the opportunity to mark the reports one year and this was one set of marking that was a dream to do. The interviews, on the whole, contained stories of interesting pasts and active presents. They included both people with children who were or weren’t involved in their lives and people without children. There were one or two lonely souls but on the whole I read about walking groups and reading groups and bingo and volunteering and grandparenting (although less of this than I imagined) and travelling. Whilst the interviewees were people who were connected in someway with the interviewer and therefore were not one of the hidden neglected old, reading the reports gave me a very warm hopeful feeling about ageing that I had not previously experienced.
That was 10 years ago and over the past few years I have become increasingly aware of ageing in our society – partly through my wonderful Mum who is now 77 but who is incredibly active with volunteering roles, church roles, walking, taking education courses, our annual holiday which inevitably is packed full and generally being a good friend to many, but also through my own increased social awareness.
It seems to me that the most vivid and persistent portrait of old age is one of neglect – run down care homes, lonely isolation, no hope for the future, waiting for death. This is the effective if rather cheesy theme of this year’s John Lewis Christmas Advert (great message, lovely music, but excrutiatingly manipulative feel to it). It is certainly true of ageing for far too many people and is an important message that we all have a responsibility to do something about, whether that’s donating to Age UK, volunteering for Contact the Elderly, campaigning for improvements to pensions and benefits, checking in on our neighbour or just stopping for a chat with a stranger on the street.
However, it is not true of all older adults and part of engaging with our senior citizens is surely to be aware of and to represent all aspects of ageing in our society. I was talking to a lovely woman on a ferry across Sydney harbour a few days ago who was telling me about how her husband had died 8 years ago just as they had taken up cycling as a hobby because it was easier on the knees than walking. She carried on cycling with friends instead of her husband and she cycles locally and has also cycled thorough Europe to Lake Garda, (she has an electric bike to help with the hills). She was currently looking forward to a cruise with another friend to Antarctica but had left the detailed arrangements to the friend because she was busy visiting her daughter in the US. When we met she was off to visit the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition (https://notallwomenarethesame.wordpress.com/2015/10/30/sculp). She asked us what we were up to and had lots of suggestions for our stay in Sydney (including climbing the Harbour Bridge which she has done twice) She was so full of energy and so warm that in the end I had to ask her how old she was – her face lit up – she had celebrated her 76th birthday the day before. Now obviously this woman had the cushion of a decent pension or whatever, but it was her spirit that really impressed me and that is not purely down to a healthy income although no doubt it helps. I came away with a similar feeling as the reports had given me – a feeling further enhanced when we stood up to get off the ferry and the good lady was 5 foot nothing! Wonderful.
We have all read about or witnessed the scourge of dementia. We know that osteoporosis can increase the risk of breaking bones, that trips and falls become more frequent with age and that our general health and fitness declines. However the BBC reports that there may also be benefits to ageing: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20151028-the-benefits-of-getting-older and we need to make sure that the message of mental and physical decline in older adults inspires us to take healthy measures to counteract those effects wherever possible rather than allowing them to overwhelm us with a sense of impending doom.
If we are lucky, ageing is something that will happen to us all one day and so for the benefit of our future selves as well as for those members of our society who go before us, we need to improve the lot of those for whom ageing is about neglect and decline but also to spread the word that it can be a positive experience too.