When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sticking around a bit longer

I was catching up with some of Michele Hanson's columns in The Guardian, where she writes about "life as a single, older woman" and the challenges of growing old. When she was 72 (two years older than me), she wrote, "You may not realise how quickly life whizzes by. So we are here to warn you. Have a lovely time. While you can." I realise, all right. Summer went whooshing by, and it's winter again. I have groundhog days, mostly, since I stopped work. Have to check what day of the week it is, before I decide what to do, if anything.

Anyhow, among Michele's stuff I came across an article by Ezekiel J. Emanuel in The Atlantic, entitled "Why I hope to die at 75". In it, he writes, 
"... living too long ... renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic."
Emanuel is an oncologist, a bioethicist, and a vice provost of the University of Pennsylvania, and the author or editor of 10 books. Maybe his work as an oncologist has influenced his attitude towards ageing. Cancer is one of the potential challenges of old age. I first had cancer in 1986. It could finish me off, or it may not. My friend Don, aged 89, has just learned that he'll have to have chemotherapy for the rest of his life. Old people with cancer frequently die of something other than cancer. You just can't predict these things. Don's more upset about the disruption to his routine and the hassle of weekly trips to hospital than the actual cancer.

Emanuel doesn't want to be remembered as "no longer vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic." Sounds like vanity to me. 75 is no great age these days, at least if you're fortunate to live in developed country with good healthcare. I'm not ready to go in five years time, it's too soon, though my life isn't very exciting and I am a physical wreck. Life is still interesting, if uneventful, so I'll hang around a bit longer, if I can.

Older people don't have to be feeble and pathetic. If you don't care what others think about you, or how you'll be remembered, age gives you the freedom to express yourself as you please. Ari Seth Cohen photographs stylish eccentrics around New York, all of them old. His latest subject is Linda Rodin, described as a "skincare guru", who's 65, which isn't especially old. Rodin isn't bothered by being grey, unlike all those silly people who waste a fortune on hair dye, and Cohen's photos show her looking glamorous. Of course, she has the advantage of being wealthy and probably healthy but, just the same, it's good to see someone who isn't ready to become invisible in old age.

When conducting funerals for very old people (the eldest was over 100), I've felt it was important that the younger members of a family, who'd only remember them as old and frail, should be encouraged to picture them as they were when they were young, like them. One woman had been a flapper in the twenties. She'd been very fashionable, which wasn't difficult as she worked as a seamstress and made all her own clothes. She'd saved up and bought herself a motorbike, roaring about on it despite the disapproval of her parents. A man had had to share a pair of shoes with one of his brothers because their family was so poor; they took turns to go to school. He worked his way through night school to get an engineering qualification and ended up as a senior member of an international company, travelling the world, and sending his children to university. If they'd only been remembered as feeble and pathetic, that would have been because their relatives didn't care to use their imaginations.

I'm too lazy for glamour but I've resolved to smarten myself up a bit and do something creative while I still have my marbles. If I lose them, I won't care how anyone remembers me. I may be a physical wreck but it would be such a waste if I pegged out at 75, after all the money I've cost the NHS.

I've just remembered a woman I used to see in Hadleigh, my nearest town, when I went shopping. She's probably dead now, as it was a long time ago. She must have been in her early eighties. She was slim and elegant, wearing the sort of clothes that would have been expensive but lasted years because she cared for them. She was never without a hat, worn at a jaunty angle, gloves, and a smart handbag. I once smiled at her and said I liked her hat, and she smiled back and said thank you. I knew nothing about her but like to think that her family wouldn't remember her as feeble and pathetic.

Photo of Linda Rodin by Ari Seth Cohen


gloriamundi said...

Good on yer, as they say Down Under. Much good sense here, from one who is just one year behind you. I like the point about encouraging young people to remember the one who has died as she was at their age.
As for medicine and old age - I've found "Being Mortal," by Atul Gawande, very enlightening, though not always an easy read (a lot about what's likely to happen if we survive into old old age!)but humane and practical; bracing, but encouraging!.

Margaret Nelson said...

Thanks! Another one to add to my reading list.

Margaret Nelson said...

Just listening to the Start the Week programme on BBC Radio 4 from earlier this month, with Atul Gawande and Diana Athill. They mention Emanuel.

Rhapsody said...

I guess it depends on where you are in the world. I find that many in the western world don't care much for the old, many have never even been around the older generation which is kind of crazy and sad if you ask me. Here I find they tend to cast them aside like worn out shoes and forget about them as if they are immune to aging. The arrogance of youth I guess.
In the Caribbean (I am from Trinidad and Tobago) we take care of our old. They are tightly woven into the community life, connected to each generation. They are valued, their skills are passed on the younger generation as they spend time with them, work alongside them. They are not put out to pastor and left to ruminate with no familial connections. They are not put into nursing homes where their mind rut from Alzheimer brought on quicker by the isolation, desolation and loneliness due to family abandonment.

I had a grand aunt who died at 89 due to Alzheimer complications (a hideous disease), she had 7 daughters who all took turns taking care of her, one even resigned her job as a nurse in England so she could provide 24/7 and the other siblings supported her financial so their mother could benefit from the family care. When things progressed to where she had to be hospitalized, they all took turns visiting, including all her grand/great grand children. The doctors and nurses were blown away because she had steady stream of family coming in all times of the day. She was never without them.

The reality is we don't know what will happen to us in the aging process. If we are blessed to live fruitful productive lives beyond our 80s with our faculty intact surrounded by love ones it is a gift beyond measure. You just have to live your best life and ensure each day you are able to laugh out loud and feel joy to your core.

I grew up surrounded by old people, at a young age when I should have been hanging with friends my age; I was off visiting my older friends. I scheduled my days so if spent time with them all. Every single one of them has crossed over into another life and I wouldn't trade my experiences with them for the world. Now when I think of going home, I am discouraged because they are all gone, so i ask myself, why am i going home? There is no one there.

Old people are not aliens from another planet, they are human beings just like the rest of us and what they feel, have to say and share is just is and has relevance, at least to me anyways.

wooo....sorry for the long rant, you just took me back to my childhood and in remembrance of all my friends who blessed me with their wisdom and love.


Margaret Nelson said...

My friend Don, who I mentioned in the post, died in July a month before his 90th birthday. He'd been ill with cancer since last October but before that, despite his hypochondria, he'd been very fit for his age - the doctors said so. By the time the cancer was diagnosed there wasn't much they could do and it was painful, though mostly controlled with morphine. To reach 89+ in good health, walking around the village almost every day and enjoying good food, was good. He was actually in better shape than me, and I'm about 20 years younger.