AGEING, Globalisation and Family

A letter from a close friend of mine reaching her 80th birthday.
Dear Rina,
No I do not mind if you post this letter on your blog. I imagine that other old women may have the same experience. But please do not divulge personal information.

As you know i have lost my sister who lived in the South of France and my ex (husband) also died last year. I have been so busy since I retired. I have had a few affairs, I have worked teaching English, I have helped in a centre for disadvantaged youth and travelled around the globe to visit my children. But now I feel tired and need to be rather than do. It is something that you have written to me about but being younger than you I did not quite see what you meant.
I feel a need to be with people who have known me for a significant length of time, people who know my background, where I come from, people who have known if not all my own family at least some of them. The few friends I made in my nomadic life are now gone. I know that it should be easier for me compared to you. I live in Paris now, French is my language but my life as mother of two sons and a daughter was spent in England for a period of time in Willesden where I met you. I envied your big family. I knew your mother and your brothers who came to visit you and I have still some oriental gifts that you brought back from Beirut. You were so comfortable in your own identity. I was lost between my French background and my English husband that I finally divorced in the painful circumstances that you are aware of.
You know that my children did well but the little family feeling that I had then in Willesden, has gone forever and I blame globalisation.

Do you remember how we disagreed on feminism? You would be proud of the career women both my daughter and in laws have become. I see my daughter not very often when she comes to Paris. She is still a very busy foreign correspondent for an obscure American TV channel. I know nothing of her life – she has never enough time in Paris. Although full of attention for her old mother, she does not feel she can share her difficult life.

You were very impressed when the two boys graduated from Polytechnique and Supaero. Yes they did well, you know, but I have never felt the fracture there when I was living my own interesting life. S. works for an international outfit in Hong Kong. His wife is Chinese and they have a son. They are very close to her own family and during their visits they stay in a hotel rather than in my flat. I found it interesting when I visited them and her family and toured a bit. But the links were too tenuous to last in spite of my attempts to learn Mandarin.
R. after a dangerous life as an environmentalist has finally settled. He married a divorced Moroccan woman with two children and they live in Rabat. The children used to come to Paris and stayed with me when they were young. But not anymore. Again they all feel closer to the maternal family and after all, the sun shines more in Morocco than Paris.

I never felt this isolation until now that I do not travel much. I wonder if like me you find the importance of being with people who know where you come from without actually having shared all  your past. I wonder too how easy it is for you to have mixed-race grandchildren and great-grandchild, these days of creeping racism.  How do you feel to have your brothers scattered over the globe:  California, New Zealand, Paris? Are you fully integrated in London? and does Leon’s family give you this family feeling? I am sorry that you cannot go birdwatching anymore because of your poor eyesight but I am sure that your feel for nature is still as strong as ever.

I am so grateful for our correspondence. You will never know how much I miss your visits to Paris. Now that we do not see each other I felt I had to revisit my trajectory. The boulangerie/cafe in Passy where we used to spend hours sharing our lives has gone. I feel a need to reinforce our friendship and share my consciousness of a new stage in my life: the 80s.
Not easy,
……..

WHY I SMILE AT CHILDREN or ageism is alive and well.

 

I am ‘gutted’ as my grandson would say. For the second time in a month I turn up at the Bank without the necessary documentation that I had prepared carefully on the kitchen table.

When I arrived back home I burst into tears. Not because of the event but because of the thought of what the bank manager and staff would think of me. I am used to these lapses and am learning how to minimising them. I remember how my now deceased friend panicked in these circumstances and on the whole I manage them with serenity. At nearly 82 I have been coping reasonably well with the decline of certain faculties. But a recent experience made me feel worthless.
At a conference coffee break, a recently retired academic knowing that I am a U3A (University of the Third Age)  member announced that she had joined the organisation. She proceeded to describe in the most vicious ageist terms the behaviour of the members of her group. I could not believe my ears when she ascribed mockingly to each one of them the most ageist, prejudiced characteristics that I have come across in my 20 years of being interested in the representation of old women.

It left me speechless trying to understand what was going on and the meaning of this diatribe.

The episode did make a mark on me. If an old woman academic could perceive us old women in this way, talk about us in this way what do other people think when they see my white hair, my sometimes unsteady gait, my forgetfulness?

Maybe that is why, in the tube, in the street I smile at little children who look at me with interest.

THE TERRIBLE 92 – part 2

Advice to myself and carers

There is no fooling ma tante Salma, her senses are all there: with her eagle eyes she will notice any minor change you dare make in her surrounding, any change of expression in your face. Her nose will smell the cucumber being cut in the room next door or the tiniest drop of sweat you may harbour. And I swear she must have a 7th sense that allows her to guess people’s thoughts and their next move within a centimetre of precision.
Her memory is all there and my ears are going to explode with tales of money, success, status, past splendour: les soirees, les brilliants et les toilettes (the evening parties, diamonds and chic clothes) often repeated again and again…
And now what? With all her money, she is pacing round and round in her room and in her head, worrying about the next pipi. Worrying about millions of minor problems, not being able to abdicate her authority on her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren…after all I have done for them
She lives in anticipation of what will happen in the next days with great anxiety.
Are these common features of old age? Or is it the result of living in exile? Past traumas not digested?

After my three weeks’ stint caring for Salma, I made myself some observations about old age .
It is very important to explain to anxious older people when and how things will happen, even if it is not what they want, rather than being vague and letting them build scenarios in their head
We must not think that age diminishes the intellect or the senses and we must treat old people as normal adults
Do not contradict old people, they usually know best but sometimes when they don’t, let it pass, or you may get a tantrum, it is not worth it
It is vital not to forget who the person is and recognise all what they have achieved in their life when they are still alive, not only at their funerals
Old people still need touch, kisses, love and little gifts of the things they like

Reminders for myself:
Do your pelvic floor exercise on the hour every hour
Notice any obsessions that may develop, acknowledge them and try to move on
Ask for help and accept help graciously, don’t forget to say thank you
Do not expect people to communicate with you if I you do not put your hearing aid
Make sure you have a non-judgmental friend or two to whom you can lash out all your woes without being contradicted
What money you have, USE IT! for your comfort and amusement, what are you waiting for?

Someone should devise a course on growing old that is not only about how to eat well, how to stay active and warm, but about the behaviours we can develop, how to deal with psychological changes. The usual response from the near and dear is : ah! she needs antidepressant”, donnez lui un calmant…

FUNERALS PUBLIC AND PRIVATE

At the age of 80 I find I am attending funerals quite often and at the last one it occurred to me how like a performance the rituals are. There are religious ones with pre determined scripts and performers. These vary according to the religion of the deceased or rather their family’s. But more and more they vary in genre and form. One followed the director’s – in this case the deceased – directions faithfully. She had instructed how her funeral ceremony should be performed in minute detail: who would speak, the lines they would read, the poem they would declaim and the song they would sing. Some funerals feature the deceased as the heroine/hero of their own life as seen from different points of view. I was specially touched by the testimonies of two carers who looked after the 100 years old woman in the last years of her life. The soundtrack is as varied as the people, hymns, well-known music for the circumstance or even popular songs sang by the whole gathering. The testimonies can be heartbreaking when the performer is overcome by grief and cannot continue. More often even the testimonies are stereotyped: a lot about how great the person was with a hint of an anecdote to underline a human imperfection and elicit a smile or laugh of recognition. At one funeral some of the testimonies were so well written that they were applauded. Cremation and burial differ in form. At a West Indian burial ceremony a bottle of rum was circulated and the grave was filled up by male members of the family.

Very often in the case of people dying in their old age this is an occasion for long-lost friends and relatives to meet again and catch up with each other. The meeting before the ceremony is chatty, the reminiscences are not always about the deceased.

It is this public/private contrasting aspects that strike me every time. My feelings about death have been shaped in my very early childhood. Although as children we were not included in the proceedings or were even positively excluded, my memories are vivid. What I remember is my mother and aunts wearing all black for the day. Some even wore black for the whole year. Men wore a black armband. I remember walking with my mother and aunts and on passing a woman wearing black in the street the sentence was etched in my brain ‘Do you know who she has lost?”. The use of the concept of losing somebody intrigued me. Although not living in a close community to this day I think that wearing something to signal that the person is in mourning is a good idea.   I remember the family sitting on the floor for days and a stream of people visiting to share their grief and make the time easier to bear. I remember that they were offered sweet cakes with the traditional coffee.

Most of all I remember the privacy of the event and I find it cruel that it is the custom nowadays for the bereaved to talk publicly to an audience who often barely knew the dead person. I find it incomprehensible that on television the bereaved are asked ‘How do you feel about the loss of your mother, your child, your friend?’ I find it incomprehensible that masses of people mourn a celebrity as if they were personally connected.

A film comes to mind. Alan Rickman’s The Winter Visitor that I need to view again and write about in my film blog.  How is death, bereavement, and grief portrayed in films?

 

FEAR OF ISOLATION

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/14/age-of-loneliness-killing-us?CMP=fb_gu#comment-42263329

It is creeping towards me. Stealthily, viciously, deadly. Since leaving the country of my youth where we lived in a big extended family I have always felt in danger of this threat but this was often allayed by the advantages of living free with no prying and judging eyes. My maternal Grandmother lived with us. She was part of the family but not quite. She mainly kept to her room being served her meals by a maid who was looking after her. My father could not bear the noise of her ill-fitting dentures at the table and she was only admitted at the table for the high holidays. She sat a the window all day long and observed the comings and goings of the tenants of this modern block of flats. She followed the dramas and comedies of a street always full of people and she used to run after me with a cardigan when she saw friends coming to pick me up to go out in the evening…

I often think of her now. I sit at my suburban kitchen window and observe the seasonal changes of the oak tree or the impassive leaves of the …. and I think yes it is about to get me.

It started a year after my retirement. I missed my colleagues dreadfully, the wonderful feeling of working in a team and knowing each other rather well. The daily contacts  and the feeling of the daily changes of my life being witnessed, the need to get on with people I did not like particularly.. In this gap year I achieved my dream of swimming on the Great Barrier Reef and observing the tropical natural wildlife I then settled in the anonymous London Suburb where I knew nobody in spite of having lived here for decades.   I joined different associations, The U3A, the antinuclear groups, the feminist groups and often went birdwatching on holiday. I read Betty Friedan but did not heed her advice of the time to change ones life as you grow older is soon after retirement. I was too busy campaigning and making new acquaintances but apart from a handful of very close friends who lived a long way away the quality of connection of the extended family or of my special working environment  was never achieved again.

In perfect synchrony the physical changes and the dreaded fear augment by the day. A meeting missed here a demonstration avoided there.   I have started to diminish my activities and opportunities for social contacts.