Saturday, April 17, 2010

Old People and Babies

My friend Vibha, my source for so many wonderful ideas, articles, books and songs, sent me a link to this article from The Boston Globe. It's about a woman who fell in love at the age of 80 and it's written by her daughter, Joan Wickersham. The reaction of many of her friends on hearing about her mother's romance was predictable: "How cute!" they said. Or, "Isn't that adorable?"

Ms Wickersham's response was no, it's isn't adorable and my mother isn't cute. She's a mature woman who happens to have fallen in love. Why does that make us uncomfortable? Why do we need to infantalize her and speak of her relationship as we might about a child in pre-school with a crush on a classmate?

But it isn't just about love after 80 that we do this. We infantalize old people in myriad ways, and sometimes with their active cooperation. I've been thinking about this a lot because I have so many elderly people in my life and I often find myself thinking about them as if they are children. Sometimes I have to check myself because it feels disrespectful, but often it seems entirely appropriate.

As Mummy, Masiji and my Dad have aged, they have become increasingly dependent upon their children. Their frail bodies invite protection - we walk beside them as we would beside a child just learning to walk. An arm is always extended, we are always scanning the ground for the loose stone they could trip over or the stairs they may not be able to make without support. We can't rely on them to take care of themselves and we don't expect them to. Physical postures, for me, reinforce mental concepts. As they need more and more assistance, I feel more and more protective, more and more in charge.

They are all hard of hearing and find it difficult to follow what other people, especially if they are strangers, say to them. Like little children, they turn instinctively to me to interpret: English into English; Hindi into Hindi. It's the tone, it's the volume, it's the comfort they find in a familiar voice translating the world for them. I know which part of what they heard they didn't understand and I either glide over it or make the necessary adjustments to fill in the gaps. It's up to me.

That gives me a power I don't always enjoy. Who am I to be deciding what they will hear and what they will miss out on?  But there are some stories which are simply too complex to explain or which they wouldn't enjoy hearing, even though they don't know that in advance. I do know it, as we know what our children can handle and what will go over their heads or confuse them.

I know it, and yet I don't know it. While most of the time they are happy to be looked after, at times, they get impatient or irritated, remembering a time when THEY were the ones in control. Decisions about finances are particularly complex. It's their money, but they don't know how to spend it. They write a check without knowing whether they have enough in that particular account to cover it and when it bounces they are incensed about the bank charges.  They buy duplicates of everything because they have forgotten they already have them or foolish things which we must then dispose of.

The infantalizing of our elders is more complex than simply being uneasy about them still being interested in sex after 80. It's part of the circle of life and is in many ways a natural response to the reality of their increasingly baby-like states. Respectfully helping them navigate the shoals of old age with dignity intact is an incredibly delicate task demanding patience, insight and detachment.

But most important of all: a sense of humor and detachment on all sides. Laughing and letting it go has gotten us all through many "interesting" experiences here in our little vridh ashram.

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