Octogenarian

People your age, they often find old people…boring

My great-aunt made this assertion, when I described the volunteer befriending role mentioned in my previous post. I am not absolutely sure that “boring” is the reason many young people avoid spending time with the elderly. I have the impression that the young are a little bit afraid. The generation or two between the young and the elderly seems like, well, a lifetime, and seems like a chasm that cannot be crossed.

My work with the elderly has been surprising, rewarding, and entertaining. From the lady who insisted that, back when she was at school, they took gin on their cornflakes, to the centenarian who was still taking the bus to the bingo in the next village several times a week. The people I met would show me photos of times past – particularly memorable was a black-and-white snapshot of one lady driving a motorbike, Wallace-and-Gromit style, complete with side car.

Wallace. With Gromit, in a side car.

Wallace. With Gromit, in a side car.

It took a bit of patience to get them talking, but I didn’t find them boring. They had interests of their own. One eightysomething lady was keen on musical theatre and developed a somewhat improbable crush on Lee Mead.

Lee Mead

Lee Mead was the winner of BBC reality show "Any Dream Will Do"

The population of Britain is aging. Life expectancy at birth for me is somewhere around 77, and for a girl born now it is over eighty. In the coming years, the section of the population that will grow fastest is the “oldest old”.

We are all aware of the cuts in public spending that have taken place or will take place. You do not have to look far to find the treatment of the elderly making headlines. I don’t have easy answers to how we fund the increasing health and social care needs of our aging population. But the octogenarians I have known have taught me that the elderly deserve our time and our patience, our care and our respect.

This post is in memory of RDS, 01-08-1928 to 30-12-2010.

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11 Responses to Octogenarian

  1. Heather says:

    My sympathy on the death of your friend RDS.

    Perhaps what the young find frightening about the elderly is the sensation that everything that is important to the former can be relativized and put into a context in which one is no longer the center of the world by the latter. At least, something like this does go through my head. But I also enjoy spending time with people who always, always have something enriching to give me from their experience.

    Much agreement that care and respect, in particular, are needed. But I am confident it will come, if precisely because of the aging baby boomer population. Legislation will be in place to palliate some of today’s most egregious lacunae, by the time we retire. So we will have nothing to retire on, but hopefully a culture of societal respect to enjoy?

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  3. Erika Cule says:

    Thank you for the condolences Heather. It is funny to hear her talked about as a friend. The befriender-befriendee relationship is an unusual one. There are some constraints, such as a set time to meet each month, and we are not “allowed” to buy one another gifts or ask favours, nor am I allowed to introduce my friends to the befriendee (without my friend going through the same CRB check I went through). But within those constraints the relationship does develop and I felt very sad when she died, spookily soon after my last blog post!

    Your thoughts on why young people are frightened of the elderly are interesting, I had not thought of it in that way. I am glad you are optimistic that by the time we retire society will have shifted a little. The elderly now make up a large and growing proportion of our population but that has only come about relatively recently. Hopefully, society will adapt accordingly.

  4. Erika, my sympathy to you, the loss of anyone you know and have interacted strongly with will always hit one hard.

    I think another reason why there sometimes is too much of a gap between the elderly and the young is that for some of the former their horizons have shrunk to the extent that there can be little common ground. Clearly not true of the people you refer to. But I have friends who say of their parents (in their 80′s and 90′s) that they repeat the same story time and time again until my friends could scream. They still need to be allowed to tell their stories but it is hardly going to be a comfortable visit for a volunteer if there is no blood tie to sweeten the boredom. That probably doesn’t translate into fear, but certainly will not encourage the interaction.

    As for Heather’s point, I agree that the generations will have totally different centres of gravity, but to my mind that is a large part of the value of the interaction. As a teenager studying the course of the 1st world war for history O Level, to obtain oral history from my grandfather, who was there in the trenches, was intriguing and horrifying simultaneously. But it also fleshed out what I was being taught in a way my teacher could not, not having been there. I suppose I could have reacted by thinking what has this to do with me? – but for me it had completely the opposite effect.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Old people are awesome; they have the best stories.

    I once met a lovely old lady on the train from Glasgow to York. She regaled everyone at our table with the stories of her life, told us repeatedly “I’m 96, you know”, refused all help with getting her luggage on and off the racks / getting a cuppa from the buffet car, and wouldn’t even consider the possibility of letting anyone help her off the train at Darlington. “It’s quite alright, my daughter is meeting me”, she kept saying. As she left us, I asked her how old her daughter was. “78″, she replied, as she stepped off the train into the arms of yet another lovely old lady.

    Everyone left at our table had massive grins on their faces for the next ten minutes after she got off.

    Erika, thanks for the reminder that I’ve been meaning to look into this kind of volunteer scheme for years now!

  6. ricardipus says:

    Cath – your story reminds me that my grandmother first flew at the age of 76. When the pre-boarding call for people with small children, wheelchairs or needing assistance was made, she apparently staunchly stayed put – reasoning that she didn’t need any help, thankyewverymuch!

    Also – gin and cornflakes – bleeeeeeeeeeeurgh! :D

  7. cromercrox says:

    Age is not chronological, it is a state of mind.

  8. Erika Cule says:

    @Athene

    but it is hardly going to be a comfortable visit for a volunteer if there is no blood tie to sweeten the boredom.

    I see it the other way around. As a volunteer, I have made a decision to give a small slice of my time and if my befriendee wants to spend that time telling me the same story they told me last month, or last year, if it helps them then I just sup my tea and nod along. I found what you describe more painful listening when it came from my own grandparents, because I remember them when they were well and I see that repetitive story-telling as a symptom of gradual decline.

    @Cath and ricardipus – Working with the elderly is something some people like, but I am with you, Cath, I think they are awesome.

    @Henry

    Age is not chronological, it is a state of mind.

    Related: one (attempted) insult directed at me was, and still is,

    [aged] sixteen…going on sixty…

    or variants thereof. Which is probably why I feel at home with people older than myself.

  9. Steve Caplan says:

    Erika,

    It’s wonderful that you have taken on this volunteering work. A lot of us talk and rant, but you actually do something!

    With regards to Athene’s comment about the narrowing of horizons, I was somewhat surprised, as I would say it is more the other way around. True, perhaps this is not the case for those suffering from dementia. However, my perception is that young people are so much more specialized and tech-oriented, that they are generally far less well-rounded in their overall education and the number of different topics about which they are ready to converse.

    I know or knew a fair number of very highly educated elderly people who never studied at university, and their knowledge was derived entirely from curiosity and interest. I also knew a number of elderly people with double or even triple Ph.D.s; something almost unheard of today.

    I am often saddened at the passing of such individuals, who have so much interest and all-around knowledge.

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  11. Sandy says:

    Hi, its a beautiful feeling to hear older people speak of their experiences. I am so blessed I am taking care of my octogenarian mother in law (85) a retired registered nurse.
    If anyone out there have any advice how to look after a sick person. I would welcome any advice to help her be more comfortable. She is sick and had to leave her own home to come stay with us in another province. I want to do the best thing for mom.
    Thanks