Some parts of two RTE TV programmes over last month helped me reflect a bit deeper on the feelings of the elderly.
The first was on Ryan Confidential with Gerry Ryan interviewing Nell McCafferty. I hadn't thought of Nell as being particularly old but she recounted a story of her recently stopping on a busy street to do something with her bag. A very young woman spoke in a friendly way to her and asked her how she was. Nell said to the young person that it was great to be recognised (as a celebrity). The young person looked puzzled, said she didn't know her at all, was simply trying to help an old woman! Nell was facing many changes.
The next was on the Afternoon Show - I casually see some of the breakfast repeats on my way out. As an experiment Anna Nolan got made up as an old lady and went slowly walking down Grafton Street whilst being secretly filmed. Said afterwards she felt totally invisible, completely ignored, as if she didn't exist.
In the studio on same programme Anna also interviewed an elderly lady who was trying (I think) to help in improving social attitudes to the elderly. This lady recounted an experience she had herself on a visit to a hospital. A nurse was asking her questions in a loud condescending voice as if the lady was a mentally challenged child. I paraphrase here but it was along the lines of...
What tablets do you take, love?
"I don't take tablets."
Ah, you must! You know, they'd be in a little plastic bottle...what you take before you go to bed.
"I don't take tablets."
"Look love, I'm going to look through your handbag, won't be a minute. Ah, wait, here's your daughter, I'll ask her about the tablets."
Can you imagine how degrading that would be if you were the recipient.
I've witnessed many old folk going through this general type of treatment - including my own mother on my regular visits to her in nursing homes and hospitals in her final years. Unfortunately many of the elderly do lose their short term memories, they become slow and immobile and looking down at them seems to be a norm. It is wrong. In their brains is a lifetime of knowledge and experiences, they were young and built a world and created our generation.
Listening and talking to old people can be illuminating and rewarding. In some cases it can require the commitment to sift though the outer interference of their broken bodies to the inner mental treasures. I chatted to many interesting people in the nursing homes while visiting my Mum. If you tuned in to them you could learn so much. I heard many tales from retired people such as homemakers, shopkeepers, Gardai, civil servants and teachers about the way they once lived.
One guy called Tom was a very lucid ninety-nine years of age. He spoke in detail to me about the Titanic sinking and it being in the newspapers for so long that everyone was sick of hearing it! He was facinating, he even could explain his grandparent's experiences in the potato famine. An amusing aside about Tom was that he was very sprightly on his feet. He once was standing talking to me as I was leaving the big sitting room. He enquired from me as to why everyone in the room were always sitting around and not doing anything. I explained to him that they were all old people...just realising as I spoke that they were actually up to twenty years his junior!
Of course there are cases of extreme brokenness in the elderly (as indeed in the young) which are exceptional challenges but these I hope are becoming rarer with better medical treatments. For the most part old people can be fun, inside they are often lively...the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.
Well guys, the only thing that separates us from all this is time. There is going to be a huge swell of us in the elderly category in the next 20-40 years. I know we'll want to be respected, we should aspire to being oases of wisdom. Let's hope we can still use a laptop and have good broadband. It may need to be a cheap laptop if the pensions don't work out!
PS - hey, I've just noticed that today is my late Mum's birthday. So this one's for you Mum!