My mother fell, again, the other night. She didn’t tell me about it until the next morning and when I reached her house down the road from where I live, I found her stoic, unmoved and making light of the gash on her forehead and rapidly swelling eye. “There was no point in waking you up,” she shrugged, daring me to contradict her. “So I didn’t.”
At nearly 83, my mother insists on her right to live alone.
A couple of years ago, I had brought her home to stay with me for a few days after a spell of hospitalisation. Throughout her time with me, she remained in bed, morose, too inert to even sit in the garden. The day she returned to her house, she bounced back to her old self: In charge, determined, purposeful. There were vegetables to buy, the plumber to call, the dog to spoil. This was her life, in her house, on her terms.
I retreated. Subsequent appeals that she come and stay with me for a few days, or only for the night, have been rebuffed.
I’m not unsympathetic to my mother’s point of view. Living in the house that she once shared with my father puts her in charge of her life. But with creeping age, the daily struggles are becoming too innumerable to count — keeping track of medicines and blood pressure, bills and house repairs, family birthdays and house-guests. It goes on, a double-edged sword that grants her autonomy and yet leaves her exhausted.
Gerontologists talk about changing life expectancy. Human beings have not lived for as long, or as well, as we do. In the last 150 years, lifespans have doubled as medical science has advanced. And yet modern medicine is hopelessly inadequate when it comes to ageing and its complications. “I learned a lot of things in medical school,” writes Atul Gawande in his new book, Being Mortal, “Mortality wasn’t one of them.”
We admire the super-achievers. The lawyer who goes to court well into his eighties. The writer who settles down to a new book in her seventies. The septuagenarian artist who finds inspiration after a triple bypass. But heroism is not restricted to the famous. There is, for instance, undeniable courage in the spirit of a friend’s mother who at 81 balances on her haunches as she plants her winter garden. Or a friend’s father who every winter drives out in search of homeless people to gift blankets to. Every family has its own stories of parents and grandparents, aging, grappling with mortality and yet leading fulfilled lives.
As people became aware of the finitude of their lives, writes Gawande, “They ask only to be permitted insofar as possible, to keep sharing the story of their life in the world.” The fear is not death. It is loss of independence.
The greatest disrespect we can show is to fail to recognise this and inadvertently patronise the generation that brought us up — the doctor who poses his questions to the attendant, knowing that the parent is perfectly capable of answering; the bank manager who calls the daughter about the mother’s account; the hand offered too quickly when no support is required.
Studies show that older people with positive outlooks live longer and better. Unfortunately, for all our talk about ‘respecting age’, we regard wrinkles and grey hair with a measure of horror. When we talk of our demographic advantage, it is always about youth. When we talk of our demographic challenge, it is inevitably about ageing. Who will bear the cost of longevity? Do we have the institutional structures in place? What is the burden of caring for the elderly?
I know my mother is not likely to hold out on her independence forever. There will come a time when we are both left with no choice but for her to move in with me. But for now, she continues. A little bruised but with undiminished spirit, a burnished flame that represents a new generation of parents that is showing its children that it will not go gently.
The views expressed by the author are personal