For a perfectionist like me, old age is a minefield. I imagined growing old like a Quentin Bryce or a Ruth Bader Ginsburg or maybe a Miriam Margolyes but it hasn’t turned out like that at all. Not even remotely. Which I suppose, considering my limited gifts of style, wit and intellect, isn’t surprising. Still, I expected more. I feel, in fact, that I am doing it all rather badly, I Have Let Myself Down.
Had I known how hard it would be, I would of course have gone into training years ago; a rigorous course to prepare mind and body for what lay ahead, something with a catchy title like Meaning and Purpose Beyond the Sixth Decade.
Shakespeare was right, in life we each play many parts. For all but a few of us, Old Age is a thankless role, the bit part that nobody wants, that you only get because you’re under contract. Some make a meal of it and get rave reviews; the rest are quite relieved to finally get off stage. But it’s often a long and arduous performance.
I think what makes it all so difficult is the gradual erosion of one’s identity, which goes with some very big losses, starting with career for many. Speaking personally, I have just hit delete on 56,000 words. At least I’m still sufficiently with it to recognise a bad novel.
Losing your partner hits hardest – well, I speak for myself, but unless you’ve been shopping for arsenic online, I imagine it’s so for most people. It’s not just the personal heartbreak, widowhood doesn’t make you half of a couple, it’s more like about, oh a quarter, I’d say. It’s part of the general invisibility of old age which has come as no shock at all, given the coverage it’s received.
Nevertheless, it’s a little off-putting to find that your opinions are no longer sought and that you are spoken to, as often as not, as if you’ve lost the capacity to think at all. I admit that short-term memory loss can be a problem, but it does not necessarily acquaint with dementia. Young persons should be taught that; they should also learn to appreciate that we may still have a sense of humour. Please do not take us so seriously. Nor is there a need to explain in detail the stuff that we learnt in grade 6, just because we need some help with an iPhone.
But the hardest thing of all, surprisingly, is to accept one’s new role in the close family circle. Especially when you are a grandparent. This includes Handing Over. A stage in life which must be managed with Great Tact, Endless Grace and Quiet Dignity. Got that? Read, mark and learn.
You hand over things like Christmas – yes, Christmas – and let your children do it their way. Not a word about the lack of linen napkins, or the fact that presents were opened before everyone arrived. It’s still wonderful. New Year’s Eve is not wonderful. The kids ring you – they are away on holidays now, you’re at home, probably with the dog. You watch the fireworks if you can stay awake. You remember the parties you used to have. People don’t do parties like that anymore, you tell yourself. You’re right. They don’t have time. You report that you had a lovely evening.
You learn your place as time goes by. You hop in the back seat of the car. You let others choose the television programme (kids don’t watch television anyway, they have devices.) You know that soup in winter and chocolate brownies and banana bread for school lunches will always make you welcome.
You accept the fact that you may cook food in your kitchen, and bring it in plastic containers, but you are completely banned from their kitchen. You are told to go and sit down, talk to your grandchildren! Which is all very well and good, except that the grandchildren would rather talk to their phones. Another difficult thing, after a lifetime of speaking your mind, is learning to shut up. To shut up before opining once more on the folly of dropping Chinese, for instance; before opining on anything much at all, in fact. You learn never ever to interfere on matters of discipline and to watch the jokes. Sex, for instance, is tricky. Your grandchildren tend to think you’re still a virgin, all evidence to the contrary. It’s sometimes a good idea to go along with this myth, they embarrass so very easily.
On top of all that, when you do get to talk to the grandkids, you quite often find them begging, Please don’t tell mum and/or dad! Quite a quandary. To tell or not to tell, that is the question. To earn the eternal love and trust of the grandchild – or risk a nasty scene if you’re discovered in a conspiracy. Oh, what a tangled web it can be.
So there you have it. Aging is damn hard. Being the perfect parent of grown-up children, not to mention the perfect grandparent, is well-nigh impossible. You desperately wish they would all stop fussing. You desperately hope they won’t stop fussing. You know the phone calls to check that you’re okay, that you aren’t lonely, that you don’t need anything, that the nice taxi-driver really was nice and got you home safely, are all a sign of love. You’re still making those calls yourself. It might be tough at times, but I know I’m incredibly fortunate to still be part of a family, scattered over two states, there when I need them or – just occasionally – when they (or the dog) need me.