Don’t Fear the Reaper

In the Sunday Times Magazine over the weekend, I came across this incisive piece from A.A. Gill, whose acerbic and witty tv and restaurant reviews are always a fun read.

This article, however, is on a much sterner subject – the isolation and neglect of the aged on a societal and cultural level. Once dementia, Alzheimer’s, disease or simply lessening function sets in, our parents and grandparents, aunts and old friends are slowly tucked away in ‘homes’ or hospices. His article points out that (despite various NHS scandals) the care is largely good, but perfunctory, and is, he notices, often performed by people from cultures where the aged are more revered.

What damns us, he feels, is the way our (‘our’ being the comparatively young and healthy) fear of death and aging allows us to let these people fade from sight. We find it easier to ignore people who seem ‘old’, all the more so when they’re sent into care. They might not always be fully lucid, but loneliness and depression are rampant, and we sigh, visit less and less often, and pass the burden of care onto ‘professionals’.

To be honest, most working people would, I think, doubt their own ability to care for ill and aging relatives. It’s a full time job, akin to parenting, only backwards, as the likelihood is that dependence will increase. However, one suspects (as I’m sure Gill intends) that perhaps not everyone in care needs to be there. That, perhaps, one should choose a home close enough to visit, or consider having the relative visited by a nurse in one’s family home, where the bulk of care is still outsourced, but the companionship and participation in family life can remain.

Beyond simply thinking now that, perhaps, in the future, if my parents or aunts and uncles need help, I’d try to take them on, if I had enough money and support, Gill wants us to consider our larger, general attitude. Why do we no longer see the aged as sources of stories and wisdom? Just the other day someone told me that when crows build nests high in the trees, it’s a sign that the summer will be warm (they need the breeze). This isn’t someone I’d classify as old, simply older, but what a wonderful thing to learn. And I sincerely doubt that information is something I would have ever picked up otherwise.

It occurs to me that the lack of humanity with which we endow the aged in our minds is akin to the Victorians view of children, in that people weren’t really people before a certain age. Has the pendulum swung so far that, in our constant quest for perpetual youth, we’ve come to think that people aren’t really people once they are beyond a certain age or absence of signs of youth?

To want to stay young isn’t simply vanity, it’s fear of approaching death, of losing everything. But surely we can fear death while happily anticipating the amalgamation of stories, wisdom, and experience that comes with time?


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