Lately I’ve been noticing old people in ads on TV and in the media. Not what I’d call ‘properly old’ people; these actors are impersonating active retirees, perhaps in their early 70’s, to promote resort-syle living, massage machines, insurance or luxury cruises. They are usually white, slim and silver-haired, with great teeth; dressed in expensive casual clothes (linen? cashmere?), they ride bikes, stroll along beaches or gaze at the sunset together. Often, they toss their silvery heads and laugh. Ha, ha, ha. It’s such fun to be us. I guess these imaginary seniors are chortling because they’ve won the financial and genetic lottery. Attractive, healthy, wealthy ageing! Such a lovely fantasy.
For what I’d call properly old people – and by that I mean from the late 70’s on – it’s not all fun and games. My parents both died in their early 80’s, and neither had a long decline. Last year, I lost three beloved older (90, 93, 98) friends. All women, all intelligent and funny and articulate, they talked openly with me and it was a privilege to hear about their long and eventful lives. But sadly their last years were (and here’s a euphemism for you) ‘challenging’. Losing a spouse, losing independence with transport or activities of daily living. Losing bladder control. Loneliness. Falls. Loss of confidence. With increasing ill-health and frailty, having to move into care. Despite the best efforts of carers, loss of dignity. Little or no say in the daily routine. Horrible food. And being so very, very tired. Not a lot of fun, but there was still the occasional spark. We could laugh at the black humour of it all. I was moved by their bravery and stoicism. As Bette Davis said, ‘Old age ain’t no place for sissies’.
Though I gave up my short-lived career in aged care in 2021, I retain a keen interest in the topic. I am still at the strolling along the beach stage (though my hair remains stubbornly dark) but I’m on my way – as we all are.
And when I am there, I would love to have a doctor like Dr Lucy Pollock, a British geriatrician. She is realistic, warm, compassionate and totally patient-centred. She discusses the topics you’d expect – independent living, falls, driving, dementia, capacity, drugs, treatments and interventions, end of life care, advance care plans. Enlivened by many anecdotes and stories from her years of practice, this book isn’t by any means a grim read; occasionally, it’s surprisingly funny. She writes:
This book is for anyone who is living with some of the problems my patients have. It’s for people who are getting very old, and for those who love them. It’s for all of us, who will, if we are lucky, become old. It’s about what I have learned from skilled, kind colleagues from families and from my inimitable patients, about how to ask delicate questions, and what to do with the answers, and what to do when the going gets tough – it explains what I have learned about how to be old.
Some of the content is of greater relevance to British readers, as it references the NHS and aged care in the UK, but most of it is informative, illuminating and inspiring. More than anything, Dr Lucy wants us to have those essential honest conversations about how the very old want to live, and to die.
I should probably read this, but it feels a bit close to the bone at the moment. Coincidentally I have just within the last hour filled out an Advance Care form for my father, who seems to be in a decline, so all these issues are extremely pertinent. He has been in aged care for eight years, with up and downs along the way, but it definitely feels like the trajectory is downward at the moment. It’s so hard, especially for him, of course, but also for us, who have to make decisions on his behalf.
Is it that long? Yes, of course is is hard for your father, but a different kind of hard for you. Sounds like you are right in the middle of it, Kate. It is so tough, and I feel for you.