Ida gives me a sideways look. I’ve just congratulated her – “You’ve had an amazing life” – but she’s not allowing that easy phrase to sum her up. “It’s had its ups and downs. Sometimes more down than up.” I realise afterwards that although we’ve been talking about her travels and her grandchildren, I know too about the loss of her first-born child, five years old with leukaemia in the 1960s. And the subsequent divorce, and the brother with drug addiction, and the loss of her eyesight that means Ida can no longer read.
The discourse of ageing is built around one theme: Stop it. Don’t get old. Stay young. Keep fit mentally, physically, socially, intellectually and sexually.
There are things we can do that shore up the independence we so treasure into old age. But we can’t stop getting older, and the message that our only hope lies in trying to do so risks portraying old age as an entirely negative prospect. We don’t say to a child hitting puberty, ‘It’s awful: spots, and embarrassing events in your pants – don’t do it.’ Puberty is growing up; it’s learning about who you are, and new relationships and opportunities. It has its challenges, but it’s exciting. We can look at ageing in the same way. The bonuses aren’t the same, but they are there, and not only for older people themselves: old people are good for young people.
Our lives are dominated by images of perfection: of dewy skin, glistening muscles; infinity pools, cocktail bars; blissful love unsullied by jealousies, fatigue, or selfishness. For the social media generation, which includes those now in midlife, FOMO is a real thing. Yet most older people have lived lives like Ida’s, full of events both joyous and tragic, and older people have a perspective that younger people can struggle to see. Ida tells me, “There are bits of my life I’d never want to live again, but I’ve had a good life.” Spending time with those who have weathered storms is good for us.
My friend Jenny’s grandmother counselled her after a traumatic relationship breakdown, “You want your life to be 10 out of 10 every day, but it isn’t like that. You can have 10/10 days but many days will be 5 or 6, and some will be 3, or even 1, and that’s just the way it is.” Jenny’s grandmother had a dismal childhood – abandoned by her own mother and dressed in boy’s clothes by a father who wanted a son – but she became a warm and loving woman, providing quiet wisdom to those around her. As she explained to Jenny, “The 1 and 3 days mean we know when we have a 10 day.”
Even the inevitable physical changes of ageing teach younger people something about what matters most. Older people habitually rate their own quality of life more highly than do younger onlookers. I watch as Gerald assembles his kit for the day: toe separators, wrist brace, hearing aids, specs, pendant alarm lest he falls, walking stick. His ears look as if he’s screwed a shaving brush into each of them, and his knees creak at every step, but he sorts out the bird feeder and writes a letter of encouragement to a godson, complete with news of the modest pleasures of his day. These small things have value; there’s much to learn from Gerald.
I meet Judy on a ward round – she has almost no hair, and her tiny body is twisted. One of her blue eyes is clouded over and it’s hard not to look at it, to hold the gaze of her good eye. But there’s a jar of L’Oréal moisturiser on her bedside table, and this morning she has applied a wobbly dab of lipstick, looked into a pocket mirror, and given herself a brief approving nod. I know that Mel, the young nurse looking after Judy, has struggled with self-hatred – her forearms bear sad scars – and is learning from Judy. Later, Mel says, “She’s happy with who she is, that lady.”
For many younger people, spending time with those who are older, whose lives may seem almost impossible, brings a lesson that perfection is not the route to happiness; that worthwhile, valued lives can be lived in unlovely bodies, and that contentment can be achieved even after a life that has contained pain or tragedy.
I ask Mel why she is a nurse on a geriatric medicine ward, and she rolls her eyes and grins. “Not for the money,” she says, before bumping my elbow with hers, and turning to attend to the drug trolley, the observation charts, and the people among whom she works. To be compassionate to others, we need to show compassion towards ourselves – to recognise and accept our own imperfections – and being among older people, hearing their stories, can help us to do that.
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Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin