Old age: thinking outside the box
Indeed it ain’t. Getting old is a curious journey and the trail signs are sometimes confusing and hard to read. The writer Robert Thomas Allen said, “You don’t grow old gradually, or on purpose, the way you go downtown on a subway. It’s more like finding yourself standing in the last station and wondering how you got there.”
And the stations aren’t well marked. I never realized I was ‘getting on’ until people started telling me how good I looked. Nobody commented on my vitality when I was seventeen, twenty-five or even forty-five, but now that I’m a greybeard, the air is full of “Hey, you’re looking great!” and “Wow! Did you lose some weight?”
I’m pretty sure what they mean is: “Hmm, I see you’re not dead yet.”
You bet I’m not. And I’ve got no plans to ‘ go gentle’ either. I’ve long admired the poem Dylan Thomas wrote for his dying father and especially his advice to ‘rage, rage, against the dying of the light’.
Not that the Welshman knew what he was talking about.
Dylan Thomas boozed his way into oblivion long before he became eligible to receive his old age pension. The man’s last words before he passed out in a heap on the floor of a New York City gin joint were, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I believe that’s a record.”
Dylan Thomas was just 39, still decades away from any first-hand knowledge of the dirty tricks advancing age dispenses – the stiff joints, the bad sleeps, the, as Leonard Cohen put it, “aches in the places where I used to play.”
I believe there’s another well-known consequence of aging but I can’t recall it offhand.
But I do recall a report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information that came out last month. It indicates almost half, 45 percent, of residents in nursing homes and similar residences show symptoms of depression.
Imagine that. You take old folks out of their homes, away from their families, their pets, their routines and ensconce them in unfamiliar surroundings among strangers and caregivers serving institutional food prepared by other strangers and they tend to get a little down in the mouth? Who could possibly have foreseen that?
What’s worse according to the report is that the depressive symptoms are frequently undiagnosed and hence left untreated.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Dr. Marie-France Rivard, an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in geriatrics, says it’s crucial to get our elders’ caregivers onside because, “depression is a very treatable illness and with appropriate identification and treatment, the quality of life of people can be much improved.”
Of course one must always be alert to the danger of too much attentiveness. Take my pal Steve. He’s a well-respect- ed elder with lots of good friends, but alas, no living family. He finally got a little too old and frail to look after his farm so he sold it and moved into an extended care facility.
And it’s a high end joint. The rooms are warm and roomy, the food is great and the staff is incredibly helpful and devoted. On his first day there, a nurse sat Steve on his bed and began to explain the facilities. As she talked she noticed that Steve was slowly beginning to list to one side. The nurse sprang up and gently pushed him upright. As she was leaving the room she happened to look back and there was Steve, sitting on the bed but definitely teetering to starboard again. She rushed back and straightened him up. Just to be on the safe side she called a nurse’s aide and asked her to stay with Steve in case he started to fall over once more.
Sure enough, five times Steve started to lean; five times the nurse’s aide got him vertical again.
I went in to visit Steve that night and asked him how he liked the place.
“It’s not too bad,” Steve allowed, “except they won’t let you fart.”