Of indeterminate age

Feb 22nd, 2010 | By | Category: Personal Columns

“Sure, he must be approaching 60”.

“Be careful what you say, now, I’m 50 this year”.

“Well, you don’t look it”.

“Ah sure, flattery will get you everywhere”.

But it’s not about numbers, is it?

Mary will be dead twelve years this year.  She was one of the best people I will ever have the good fortune to meet. She lived alone in the farmhouse in which she had lived since her marriage in 1925. On her 92nd birthday she was given a new greenhouse as a birthday present, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do when I get old’, she said.

I remember stifling laughter at Mary’s comment, if 92 wasn’t old, then what was? When she died in 1998, she was a young 95.

As the years have passed, I have increasingly understood what Mary meant. ‘Old’ was not about chronology, it was about independence and dignity, and the faculty to think and act for oneself. One can be old at an early age and young at a late age.

Thoughts of ageing brought memories of a lady whose affairs I handled.  Visiting her during her final illness, I saw a trim, well-groomed upright lady sitting on a bed and chatting to those around, ‘Ah! There she is’, I thought. But, of course, it wasn’t. That’s how she would have looked six or seven years previously, a lady who spent much of her time walking and who loved nothing more than fresh air.

She had been in nursing care for more than five years, increasingly confused, bedbound, and developing cancer. I hadn’t found her on the ward so had to ask the nurse who seemed to be the solitary member of staff for the whole ward, where she was. She had been transferred to a private room, on top of everything else, she had picked up one of the hospital bugs in which the NHS seems to specialize.

The person I saw was unrecognizable from the person she had been. Steroids and successive illnesses had changed her appearance beyond any resemblance of her former self. I had tried to make conversation and she had rambled through a few sentences before falling back to sleep.

An officious nurse had come in and said would I make sure I washed my hands before I left the room, at no point as she went around the ward, did I seen her take any such elementary procedures. Tempted to say that people seemed in more danger in hospital than out of it, I had bitten my tongue- she had my name and address and would have judged it a political comment from someone coming up from Dublin.

The visit had been mostly pointless, I don’t think the relative even knew I had been there and the nurse had known nothing about her state of health, other than that I should make sure I had washed my hands.

I’m glad Mary never got old, I would wish such a fate on no-one.  Being 50, or any other age, will be no more than a number if I can live my years as Mary did.

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  1. I have a 94 year old Granny. A couple of years ago she was like your young friend Mary. She’s not so young just now though. Time has speeded up over the past few months.
    On the plus side though, two of the staff looking after her are girls (women) she taught at primary school. They were delighted to see her, remembered her fondly and vividly, and now champion her. So not all good deeds are punished.

  2. My granny died three years ago at the age of 94, still living on the farm where she had lived since her marriage in 1935. My aunt had answered the door to the doctor, who had come on a house call because my granny had had a chest infection, and had gone to the kitchen to make some lunch, by the time he had got up the stairs my granny had gone – a good end.

  3. ‘One can be old at an early age and young at a late age.’ I like that phrase and it has given me inspiration!

    Ian, I want to go out like a light as your granny did. Quietly and with no fuss!

  4. […] can be old at an early age and young at a late age’, this is a phrase I learned from Ian.  I sometimes think I missed ‘youth’ on the first time round, but these days I feel […]

  5. Interesting conversation about age, but something disturbed me a bit as I read, sorry. Can visiting the elderly really be pointless just because the family wasn’t aware you were there? It makes me sad that a clergyman would think that worth is measure but who knows what we do. Doesn’t God decide that? Just curious.

  6. “I don’t think the relative even knew I had been there.” She was my relative and I don’t think she knew I had been there, I was the family.

    In my own ministry I have spent twenty odd years visiting people in advanced illness, who probably have no awareness of my presence, but praying God’s grace might be present.

  7. Oh!!!!!!!

  8. Hmm . . growing old gracefully . . or disgracefully .. .I might never be young again but I can be as immature as I like!

  9. Sorry Ian that was a little glib . . I have a friend who no longer visits her mother who has dementia and alzheimer’s disease because her mother no longer recognises my friend. I find that callous to the nth degree. She is still her mother, still able to enjoy a visit even if she doesn’t recognise her own daughter. Shoot me before I get there please.

  10. With the recent debate in the Uk re ‘assisted suicide’ that may be a possibility. This is a very subject topic and I imagine we have stories to tell but are best left unspoken…

  11. subjective

  12. innocentearthangel: Ian was being oblique as the relative, I think. 😉

  13. I’m good at being oblique, and sometimes, too often, obtuse, and sometimes, unfortunately, obnoxious!

  14. Isn’t everything subjective?

  15. oblique, obtuse, obnoxious – the perfect cocktail! 😉

  16. An artistic temperament?! 😉

  17. A genetic recessive gene? :-O

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