When death and illness become a part of everyday life
“Old age is a bummer” a dear friend of mine said as she arrived for lunch the other day. Well, she actually said something rather stronger, but you get the gist. And that is so true. She’s going through medical problems and trying to work through the complexities of our National Health Service, so, yes, it is a bummer, for her, and for many of us.
Few people warn you about the challenges of old age – although my dear sister did advise me to make the most of my sixties as everything would get worse in my seventies! And how true that has been. But most of us don’t like to think about it, do we, old age or vulnerability, until it lands on us?
Every week now we hear of a friend who is ill, or someone who dies. I hadn’t realized how resilient I was going to need to be at this age, and, looking back, I realize I probably wasn’t as understanding of my mother when her friends were dying as I could have been. I do remember, when working on the biography of Harold Macmillan, how lonely he found it, in his nineties, being one of the few people left of his generation.
So, how do we become resilient within this environment, especially as the medical services seem to have pretty much collapsed, and we are warned that social services are unlikely to be able to provide care for us later, even if we do have enough money to scrabble together to pay for it?
To plan or not to plan, that is the question. Whether it is easier to admit defeat and pack up one’s things and move to a smaller house, or flat, or bungalow, or transfer to one of those posh blocks where they provide restaurants and swimming pools and medical suites if one has the money. Or bury one’s head in the sand and continue as one is?
Of course, our children worry about us falling down the stairs, fracturing something, and making our old age a drama that no one can easily manage. But many of us aren’t ready to give up our lifestyle or our homes. The homes aren’t particularly big but may not be totally practical when we become old and gaga and can no longer climb the stairs, etc. Yet old age often also brings the joys of grandchildren, and one does want a living space large enough to allow them to stay. Indeed, inevitably we want to hold on to the life we are having for as long as possible, be close to our friends and do the things we enjoy doing while we can.
We moved to a smaller house a few years ago, in an area that I consider to be perfect for this time of our life as we are three minutes from the tube, a pharmacy, doctors, Tesco and village shops, plus we have Kew Gardens to walk in. However, it is on three floors and right now my knee is playing up and it takes me quite some time to walk up, or down, to answer the door. What if I need a new hip, how will I manage then?
But on the other hand, one could say that the stairs keep us fit. A friend of mine whose father lived in the States in a residential home with a lift, completely lost his capacity to climb up even one set of stairs.
So, I guess it is about living in the moment but keeping an eye on the future. For sure, thinking about what one wants in the last days of one’s life, making that living will, ensuring one’s will is totally fair and can be easily understood and executed. For myself, I believe in talking to my children about my wishes should I suddenly be taken ill or incapacitated. Others don’t want to have these conversations. Fair enough. There’s no perfect way to live, no perfect way to die.
But for me, also, in order to become resilient enough to keep happy within these changes of old age, it is about touching a sense of the intangible in life, the spiritual, or whatever you want to call it. The small but powerful essence inside us that accepts that life is finite and wants to find some kind of peace and grace within oneself, and with life and relationships, before one moves on to whatever there might be on the other side, even if that is nothing. For me, this takes some solitude, peaceful music, time in nature, time with grandchildren who have that essence somehow still inside of them, and of course spending time with their parents, one’s own children! What is more precious than this?
I recommend, again, Michael Ignatieff’s book On Consolation, which has many examples of how those who have faced illness and death found some consolation and courage to manage it. This can be through writing or journaling, music, prayer, one’s marriage, family. friends. As we think of this, it feels important to consider the legacy we want to leave, the memories we would like people to hold of us, the events that may help them think warmly of us and the times we have spent together.
Those ripples last a lifetime. My grandmother died when I was 17 yet I still remember her every day with such love and affection, remember the times we played cards together, watched horse races, went for walks with our dog. And so, of course, I hope that when I am long-gone, my gorgeous grandchildren will have a few happy memories of the times we are having now, too.