A journey of reinvention: the conflicting pulls of older age

Nov 19


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Helen Whitten

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A journey of reinvention: the conflicting pulls of older age

Is this the journey of life, I ask myself?  To continually reinvent ourselves?  We begin as tiny babies and hopefully are taken care of by reasonably kind parents.  We grow up, have children, become grandparents … and then what?  The stages of life are complicated and confusing and the pulls between family, friends and personal interests continue into later life.

I have become aware of how tricky it can be, post-retirement, to decide where to live and how to divide one’s time.  I am delighted that David and I have moved to Kew as this allows me – presently at least – to be near enough to my sons and grandchildren to be helpful.  It also allows David’s sons to visit and for him to be be present enough for them.  It is my observation that grandfathers are not needed so frequently in the practical sense but are immensely important as an anchor of emotional support for children and grandchildren alike.  A rock.

Kew also provides us with new friends and plenty of interests and entertainment on our doorstep.  But I am aware that we are fortunate in having both family and friends within a relatively close environment.  We know plenty of people who have children and grandchildren in far distant countries and are put in the position of having to decide whether to stay close to friends as they get older and frailer, or whether to move nearer children.  But if one has lived far apart for any length of time then moving nearer children entails the upheaval not only of moving house and country but also making a completely new set of friends later in life.  Otherwise one is thrown back on depending on one’s children – one of life’s little circularities!

With the pressure not to fly due to climate change, these decisions are all the more poignant, as inevitably one wants to stay in close contact with blood relatives wherever they are.  It is human nature.  And, in my experience, the bond a grandparent feels with a grandchild is one of the most precious experiences of our lives because we have more time to cherish it.  Also, as older people, the innocence of childhood is wonderful to regard: bright eyes, youthful skin and energy!  A life ahead of them.

Inevitably, though, one’s adult children and grandchildren have their own lives.  Busy lives, just as ours were.  So one absolutely needs to build one’s own life, wherever one is.  That is all the harder, though, if, in later life one has to upsticks and move to be near one’s offspring.  We are lucky in Kew to have the Avenue Club where we meet other energetic folk of our age, and live in a friendly street.  But this certainly isn’t the case in many other places.  It wasn’t when we lived in Hampshire.  Many older people are lonely.  They have children and grandchildren nearby but miss their peer group of friendships, with all those memories they share of growing up and living in a particular era.

And so, looking back, I am aware of all those stages of transition from childhood to teens to adult hood to marriage, parenthood and grandparenthood.  I remember how delightful it was when the children were young and enjoyed one’s company, and we theirs.  I recall the day they returned from school as teenagers and more-or-less said “Hi Mum, bye Mum” as they started to develop their own lives and found one far less interesting to be around.  The phase of eyes-raised-to-the-sky when one says something and the “Oh Mum…!” spoken in disapproval, despair or disagreement.  Friends were an essential prop to me as a parent at that time.

The rupture of the empty nest is very real and harsh, in its way, as the home becomes both quiet and empty. After so many years of tending for others, one finds oneself wandering around Waitrose wondering what food it was that one liked, having spent so many years buying food that others enjoyed.  It is a time of seriously revisiting and questioning one’s own identity.  Who am I after all these years of being a mother?  What do I enjoy?  How do I want to spend this extra time when I used to be cooking or chatting or just hanging out with my kids?  And, for a period, we continue our lives as adults, working, travelling, enjoying life for we have to be there for them and yet reinvent ourselves as an individual.  As Khalil Gibran says wisely in The Prophet:

Your children are not your children

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite

And he bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness,

For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

It is when we become grandparents and then enter this latter stage of our lives that we begin to feel more vulnerable and we once again check and revisit our identity.  Who are we now that we are not working? Do we have the time and energy for voluntary work?  How shall we stay well?  How much time will our children want to spend with us?   If we do get ill how shall we manage?  Do we have sufficient finance for care?  Is it best to stay near close friends or move ourselves to Canada, Singapore or Australia to be closer?

But then even if we move near our children there is no guarantee that they won’t be offered a job somewhere else.  Then what?  A friend of mine had her son and granddaughter living ten minutes away in London.  Next thing her son gets a job in Spain and now she can only see them occasionally.  She and her husband miss them very much.  And what might happen when, inevitably, she or her husband dies?  Will the bereaved partner then move to Spain too?  Loss brings these questions all the more sharply into focus.

I am aware, also, that as grandparents we have a sort-of sell-by date.  In the early years we are loved and appreciated.  In the teenage years the grandchildren inevitably, and rightly, have their own lives and hopefully will visit from time to time.  But we must be independent enough not to be a burden, if possible.  For that reason, we need our own circle of friends to amuse and support us, and we them. 

I guess this sounds a bit miserable.  I don’t mean it to.  I am simply reflecting on the stages of life, the circles, twists and turns and how each transition demands that we reconsider who we are, what we enjoy, and reinvent ourselves.  And this isn’t just for those of us who are parents or grandparents as of course there will be those reading this who do not have children.  In this case friends, cousins, nieces and nephews are all the more important.

I hope sincerely that I shall not become a burden and I, like many of those I speak to, hope that one day soon there will be a dignified way to exit this life should we become too infirm to enjoy it.  In the meantime, I thank my lucky stars to be here in Kew and close to my sons and also friends.  But there is no guarantee that things will stay this way and I, like others, must be ready to adapt to any more changes should they occur.  One never knows what is around the corner.  Adaptability remains the key. 


2 Responses

  1. Helen this is an important topic for us as we hover around the 70 mark!! For myself, having had to get used to my children living across the oceans, I have developed an ease and an acceptance of solitude. And of course as you say a delight in close friendships where fun as well as real exchange of thoughts and feelings can be had. To be able to care for myself and share with friends and see my children every so often is important. In place of the luxury of seeing them regularly in an everyday setting, I try to cherish the occasional with meaningful and quality time.
    As you say we have to adapt and take pleasure in the simplest of things while we can.

  2. I like your comments in your blog on the need to be flexible, courageous and be prepared to reinvent ourselves. And at a cellular level we are still producing new cells in all our tissues as the old cells die as they reach their ‘sell by date’. Much of this is determined by the length of our telomeres, which at the end/tip of each chromosome, are a collection of proteins that protect the integrity of our DNA. Details of this mechanism are found in The Telomere Effect by Prof Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel. The good news is that a healthy lifestyle with exercise, good nutrition, meditation and a positive attitude lengthen these protective telomeres and may make the difference between ageing well – adding life to years, and premature ageing..

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