Jan 01, 2019

Ageing seen bleakly through a glass half empty

I have been wrestling with a recently read 2017 Guardian article about Miriam Margolyes.

It’s an interview through which the well known actress “wants to break open a conspiracy of silence about ageing,” and specifically that “nobody tells you that old age is going to be shitty.”

As anyone reading my columns knows, my view is that it is actually no more shitty, nor more great, than any other age. But she is a notable identity whose work I certainly admire and enjoy. So I was very interested to read her basis for that statement.

And she certainly presents quite a list of challenges that she has been facing in her mid-70s. As well as knowing that “at 75, death can’t be far away,” she is developing a number of “painful and often embarrassing physical ailments that afflict people in old age.” These include stress incontinence after a kidney stone operation, the inability to walk upstairs after a knee operation, the need for a wheelchair at airports, and having osteoporosis with its vulnerability to breaking bones (though she hasn’t as yet).

She is also unhappy with what she sees as old people often being treated “as though they are invisible.” So, that does all add up to being not such a pretty picture of ageing.

The interesting thing is that woven through that interview are indications of some very positive aspects of her life.

They include not being exactly invisible herself, as she is “at the peak of her acting career and…busier with work than she has ever been.”

And certainly most of us will have enjoyed her outstanding performances in all sorts of recent roles, from Phryne Fisher’s aunt in the ABC series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, to one of Harry Potter’s quirky teachers in that series of movies.

And I noticed recently on giant bus advertisements in Melbourne that she will be starring in the upcoming Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2019 version of Alan Bennett’s’ Lady in the Van.

So, wheelchair notwithstanding, she is managing a fair degree of international travel.

At the same time, while she is now unable to go up the stairs of her five-story house in South London, her finances have clearly been sufficient to turn “her basement flat into a sunlight-filed sanctuary: her own self-contained flat.”

She also has a “warm camaraderie” with “the other great British female actors of her generation.

On the health side, she greatly values “the ‘brilliant’ NHS, which she says has provided her with state-of-the-art care.” And she is giving back by doing the public spirited thing of being an ambassador for the National Osteoporosis Society And last but certainly not least, she does acknowledge “one big upside to getting older:….the freedom to speak her mind.”

From the totality of this interview, therefore, my reading of her mind is that it is informed from the perspective of a glass half empty personality, where the negatives are highlighted and little or no countervailing joy appears attached to (almost) all of the current positives.

In reality, however, I think it’s highly likely that if she used a balance scale for the pros and the cons that she herself has identified in the interview as being part of her life at present, and put them onto the separate sides to be weighed, they would actually balance each other pretty evenly.

Which is the sort of mix that life generally is at any age, when you think about it.

Clearly, on the other hand, I too talk about ageing from a biased perspective, since – as a perhaps exasperatingly glass half full person of a similar age – I see the positives of my life right now much more brightly than the negatives.

Although, if pushed, there certainly are some of the latter. As there have been right through my life, from the agony of acne as a teenager onwards. C’est la vie.

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  1. I for one am grateful for Miriam speaking out about the challenges and negatives of old age that no one tells you about.
    As a Trained Nurse in General, Geriatric and Psychiatric fields with Degrees in Social Science and Health Service Management, I am constantly exasperated since retirement from Nursing and Health Management that no one listens to or values my point of view.
    I am an advocate for my elderly mother (93) who is in a nursing home as well as caring for my disabled sister in law (64) with Downs syndrome. I find that my requests and suggestions in regard to their health care needs are consistently dismissed by health professionals and caregivers unless I give them my resume of 40+ years experience in healthcare and health management (which incidentally I feel uncomfortable in doing as they then become defensive and avoidant). Once upon a time, as a working professional, my views and opinions were sought out in a team context in planning for the care needs of individuals.
    In seeking treatment for my own health care, I frequently have my symptoms dismissed as “part of ageing” and “something I just have to put up with” when I know that there is appropriate treatment available that will cure or relieve my symptoms. I fear for my twilight years when I will no longer be able to advocate for myself.
    You are still engaged in the working field Anne and your role carries some authority. Post retirement it may be a different story when you are just another grey haired old (female) person who is “just” someones daughter or sister in law.

    1. Thank you for your very thoughtful comments, Merilyn, and I have to say that I absolutely love your final paragraph showing the light that you see me in, when in fact you and I actually have a lot in common, as I too am a retired health professional (since 2006), and over the years I cared for and was constantly challenged in my role as an advocate for my aged parents (my father, dying from cancer in his 70s, and my mother dying in her 90s with dementia). And I am now – at 76 years of age – very much a grey-haired old female who is “just” a sister-in-law, and also a wife and mother and besotted grandmother, with my fair share of some of the less pleasant aspects of an ageing body, and still deeply missing my parents, dementia and all with my mum, and wishing that I could also still be a daughter.
      Added to all of this, however, is my lifelong passion for writing, which I can now indulge to the max, writing blogs as a freelance writer, letters on issues that I want to speak out about to the papers (and always a thrill when one gets up), and now a recently finished and huge project of a book on ageing well, which is – excitingly – with a publisher. This book in no way resiles from exploring and tackling the challenges of ageing, but it also – through a combination of research, anecdotes and personal experiences – considers ways in which our old age (in its various evolving stages up to and accepting our terminal state) can be balanced by making the most of the life we have now, just as one can do at all stages in our lives. And I absolutely appreciate all the good things that are in my life right now.
      At the same time, while I absolutely acknowledge that there are times when something bad can totally overwhelm us (and I’ve certainly had some of those times during my life), in general – from all of that research, etc – I also do know that I am lucky to have been born with an optimistic view of life, as there is a lot of evidence showing that people with that disposition are pretty fortunate in how that colours our view of the world as we age.
      And as for doctors who dismissively put one down (metaphorically only, one hopes!) on account of old age, there are some great doctors who don’t, so it’s worth sussing out one of those.

  2. There was a time when we did not tell cancer patients that they were incurable and were going to die. In doing so we put a barrier between them and the honest support of families and friends who conspired to deceive. People manage much better when they are given the opportunity to be realistic about their situation. This allows others to form positive caring relationships with them and help them make the most of what they have got left.

    By any standards getting old physically and mentally in your 80s and 90s and then dying is usually pretty “shitty” and not much different. Talking about world class aged care, glowingly advertising nursing homes as if they are holiday parks and building them as if they are (then understaffing them) seems to be little different to what we used to do.

    Margolyes describes the beginning of what awaits most of us and shows how we can fight back and make the most of what we have left. By doing so she engages her friends and breaks down the barriers that others have in dealing with the old and frail. I don’t see that as a glass half empty approach! She is doing us a service by using her celebrity status to engage with an ageist society by telling them what it is like.

    Some of us are lucky enough to still have the financial, physical and mental resources needed to make a good life in the face of adversity. We should speak up for those who are less fortunate and seek to engage the community in these issues so that they can engage and help those less fortunate and be realistic when they get there too.

    1. Hello Michael,

      Thank you for your very thoughtful comments. Please see my reply to Merilyn for some relevant general points that I made in response to her comments. In addition, I did want to say that it is, of course, very useful to have people highlighting challenges that we might have to face in old age, or any other age (reams of books and articles on baby care to take a for-instance). The point that I was aiming to make was that it seemed to me that in amongst the shitty aspects, Margolyes has some very positive and successful aspects of her life which are dismissed in favour of the argument that she is making for sheer negativity.
      And I completely agree with your last paragraph, as a principle that we should all live by right throughout our lives.

  3. Thanks Anne for responding. I take your point.

    I am actually a lot older than you both! My problem is that I struggle to see anything positive in a system that loudly claims to be world class when it clearly is anything but and which markets glowing images of life in old age in order to attract people into facilities that cannot deliver this..It is their plight that depresses me. If that makes me a glass half empty I want to change it by pressing for something real that I can identify with and feel positive about for others as well as myself.

    Those who make these claims clearly believe all this in the face of clear evidence (when you look} that this is not so. There is nothing new in this. Denial of what is obvious has been a feature of almost every dysfunctional ideology during the 20th century. This makes these situations interesting to study but difficult to confront because belief always seems to trump evidence.

    We probably do need to ration care, We should start by being honest about that and all contribute to making it as good as possible. We can then be positive about making the best of what we have knowing that others are able to do that too.

    1. Hello Michael,

      I do want to make it clear that I certainly don’t think that glass half full people go around with blindfolds on. Whatever view of a glass one has, when one sees inequities in our society (and for me that includes the desperate situation of the homeless, whom governments and councils manage to sweep under the carpet of neglect), those of us with a concern for our fellow men and women do have to do what we can to change that. Your passion for helping people in residential care is certainly justified in many cases, in a system that is definitely faulty, despite the existence of some nursing homes that I have seen which do make life for their residents a primary and satisfying objective.

      Combining both of our concerns, I have been singularly impressed about what I have read about a provider that appears to have developed a system of care for the elderly homeless that is absolutely remarkable, and could serve as a role model for other providers. I am talking about Wintringham, a specialized welfare company that provides housing and care to elderly, frail men and women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

      And I can only iterate that the point that I was trying to make in my article was that in general, even if not always in particular moments in our lives, the negatives that we experience are balanced by some positives (some of which might well be overlooked by being taken for granted. I now simply appreciate, for example, the fact that I am a reasonably fit and healthy old person whose body is still able to take me for walks, whose mind loves tackling ideas and challenges, and whose eye continues to enjoy the framing of photographs through a camera). This is not to say that such negatives as Margoyles enumerates should be discounted as negligible, but it is saying that just from that article it is clear that she also has some great positives, and neither should they be discounted as she does in order to make her point about old age being a total disaster.

    2. Hello Michael,

      I do want to clarify that I do not think that glass half full people necessarily have blinkers on. Whatever one’s view of the glass, when there are inequities that we are appalled by (and for me the parlous and constantly neglected state of the homeless is one such), then it is certainly up to the more fortunate to take up cudgels on their behalf. And certainly there is much wrong in the system overarching residential facilities for various levels of aged care, even though I do know that there are some nursing homes which do put the needs and wellbeing of their residents admirably front and centre of their caring role.

      An Australian provider that combines both of our concerns and could – from my readings about it – serve as a role model for the wider system is Wintringham, a specialized welfare company that provides housing and care to elderly, frail men and women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

      And I do want to emphasise, again, that I am fully aware that old age isn’t a walk in the park and that, as with any age, there can be overwhelming times of bleakness. At the same time, generally, life as an old person, as at any other age, is a mixture of the shitty, in Margoyles’s words, and the good (some of which is so taken for granted that it is simply overlooked. I now fully appreciate, for example – among other things – being fit enough to walk, being mentally active enough to debate ideas, and continuing to get great pleasure by framing photos through the eye of my camera). And with Margoyles, right within the article about her, are clearly some great positives that she discounts in order to highlight a purely negative view of her own ageing. That was what I was wanting to draw out in my article.

      1. Anne. I think we are really very much in agreement. You were using Margoyles article to make your point and I think that I was using yours to make mine. I have seen so many similar dysfunctional situations over the years that I feel an obligation to speak out and use that experience even when that impacts on my ability to maintain the fitness I still have and enjoy the many other things that having a family and still being mentally active allows me to do.

        That means focusing on and analysing the bad things that people don’t want to acknowledge to try to get them to do so even when that upsets those who are doing it well. Those who succeed deserve our admiration but that should not take our focus off those who are not because they will use that praise to reaffirm their belief in what they are doing.

        We have a system that makes it difficult to do the right thing but many have lived their lives there and identify with it. The way we humans adapt and develop ways of living with that situation and pretend bad things are not happening is interesting. We readily use any justification we can find to reaffirm our position. The wise men of history pointed out that it is usually good men who do the really bad things and this was because they could or would not look.

        Growing up in the years after the great depression when people were generously helping each other out, looking out for them and being socially responsibility is a handicap in the era of competition and efficiency where everything is built around competitive, markets and self-interest. – and people see this as good!

        And yes studying the dynamics of what is happening in the sector and then engaging with issues is stimulating and interesting so there are positives. (a glass half full!) If only we could all be so lucky!

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