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Older but not over the hill

This week’s storyteller has chosen to be anonymous.

There’s a societal habit of associating old age with decrepitude. Because someone is elderly they automatically can’t do things for themselves. They can’t hear and see as they used to and therefore they’re considered incapable.

This widely shared assumption seems to create an “invisible barrier” between the old and young that prevents them from talking to each other like normal human beings. Ageing parents, and grandparents alike, are often placed in a category labelled “fragile – do not touch – do not disturb” which means you stop looking at them like they’re your parent, or grandparent, and start fussing. This creates further barriers between you both as you treat them differently to the way you always have, and maybe you don’t even know you’re doing it.

This “invisible barrier” revealed itself to me on a recent trip to the theatre with my grandmother and family. My grandmother has severely arthritic hips and upon picking up our tickets at the box office I realised, with horror, that our seats were situated in the circle which was signposted as being at the top of 62 stairs! My grandmother is in constant pain, movement exacerbating this pain, and is reliant on a cocktail of medication in order to manage day to day. To my relief there was a lift but it didn’t go all the way to the circle.

My grandmother had to make her way up the last 3 flights of stairs with her crutches in hand, aided by my father. This last trek to the top was unbeknownst to me until my mum came rushing over to ask if my other half could go help my struggling grandmother traverse the rest of the stairs. My partner came back 2 minutes later. She was fine and she didn’t need any extra help! It was as if my mum had already labelled my grandmother – “fragile”.

My grandmother is slowed down by her chronic arthritis and thus she takes more time to climb stairs but it’s her pained expression that worries my mum most. I know that my grandmother doesn’t like people to make a scene and so I didn’t hover around her. Saying this when we’re at home I do sometimes pretend that I need to go upstairs when my grandmother decides she needs to go upstairs. I get just as anxious as my mum but I try and hide it when I’m around my grandmother. She’s a very proud woman.

My grandmother emerged through the sea of people and had to make it down a few more steps to our theatre seats and this is when the worrying began. She still remains a vastly independent woman and she would vehemently deny that she needs anyone’s help. She recognises that her body is frailer than it used to be but she doesn’t like to be managed. My sibling and I became very much aware, as did my grandmother, of a conversation between my parents about her mobility and whilst I have no doubt that the discussion was born out of genuine concern for her wellbeing it seemed to perpetuate her weak status.

Knowing that she was being talked about my grandmother seemed embarrassed and began to take on the characteristics my parents were describing – physically she seemed to become more hunched in her seat, her fragility more pronounced. Perhaps this was just my imagination but the concerns my parents had voiced, the words they had spoken, had affected my view of my grandmother.

It was almost as if my parents’ conversation had spoken her vulnerability into being for me. She was noticeably withdrawn at dinner after the theatre – usually she has an opinion on everything and she’ll tell you whether you want to hear it or not! I found it hard to talk to her that evening. I couldn’t find the right words to say, the right way to look at her and I almost felt I should apologise for what my parents had said even though they were only voicing their concerns about how best to help my grandmother manage her pain.

It’s fair to say that, of late, my grandmother has been in and out of hospital and we’ve all been fretting about her fluctuating health and arthritic flare ups.

There’s no doubt that these difficult discussions have to be had about our parents, or grandparents, but, whenever possible, they should be conducted out of earshot. The whole event reminded me of that scene in Bambi when Thumper recites the rule taught him by his mother “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”. My parents weren’t being rude about my grandmother, by no means at all, but they were questioning her abilities and to an elderly lady that can be perceived as rude. Awareness is not impeded by old age. My grandmother is acutely aware that she’s advanced in years and needs more help than she will ever admit.

My parents, indeed my whole family, just want the best for my grandmother and although we all go about ensuring she’s ok in different ways it’s so easy to blame another member of your family for going about it the “wrong” way. Believe me when I say no one gets it “right” all the time. When I was younger I used to avoid talking to my grandmother altogether because I thought that she wouldn’t find anything I said interesting. This generational gap needs to be closed. The “invisible barrier” broken. How do you view your ageing parents?

Let us know your thoughts about people’s changing expectations when it comes to old age in the comments below or perhaps send us an email if you have a story you’d like to share.

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