Sunday 27 October 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Old age is a faraway land full of wrinkled, drooling, absent-minded, incontinent and senile inhabitants. It’s the penultimate stop before the terminus. Actually, it is the last stop for some.

Those words are not mine. In fact, they don’t belong to anyone in particular in that they are not a quote we can easily append to someone. Those words, however, partly represent our current attitude to the elderly as a society. As a youth-, beauty-obsessed society.

I am writing this post later than usual. It is normal for me to draft up my “reflections” a week or two before the Sunday on which they are due to be posted. But this time it has taken me longer to put pen to paper. Or hands to keyboard as modernity dictates. The reason for my unusual procrastination is Alice Munro’s beautiful and touching prose. Her writing had the unfortunate effect of immobilising me mentally. I knew what I wanted to write about. The question was: how? I have been familiar with the Canadian author’s short stories for some time now. And yet, The Bear Came over the Mountain, re-published recently by The New Yorker on the occasion of Munro winning the Nobel Prize for Literature had me welling up. That was before I remembered I had already seen the film based on her short story.

I then began to think that there aren’t many movies, literary works or dance pieces (to name but three art forms) around these days that address old age from a mature, realistic point of view. Either we get the forgetful old dear, the sassy grey-haired (heavily patronised, sadly), or the ageing, but still all-conquering Lothario (usually a man, obviously). Both The Bear Came over the Mountain and Away from Her, the film based on the tale, focus more on the characters and their circumstances.

In The Bear..., Grant and Fiona are a married couple about to embark on a difficult journey. Fiona is checking into a home for people in the early stages of dementia. At seventy years old, Fiona is “still upright and trim, with long legs and long feet, delicate wrists and ankles, and tiny, almost comical-looking ears”. On the way to Meadowlake, Fiona’s new abode, there are doubts and jokes. Driving past a swampy hollow, now covered in ice, Fiona remembers that she and Grant went skiing there many years before. This recollection makes Grant almost want to turn around. What follows thereafter is a heart-rending (but, luckily, unsentimental and non-cliché) exploration of the consequences of dementia, but also of what old age is.

Old age: what kind of land is it?
And what it isn’t. Old age is not a faraway land full of wrinkled, drooling, absent-minded, incontinent and senile inhabitants. It is a stage, the last one in our human life, for sure, but not less important than the ones which preceded it. Senescence is the concept they didn’t tell you about back in school because you were too busy being young. We will never be old, we tell our younger selves, with the bravado that characterises our adolescent and young adulthood years. When I was a teenager, I looked at my grandmother, with whom I still shared my flat in Havana (and with my mother, my auntie and my cousin. By then my dad had disappeared from the scene) and saw an active woman. She was in charge of the house chores, always fussing after visitors, always smiling. But I never saw myself as her. I never thought of myself as ever being her age. To me my “Mima”, had sprung up into my life in her 60s, or 70s, or 80s. Any age but a young age.

That’s what I see around me today. Not just in the UK, where the obsession to look young (or not to look old, take your pick) is taking its toll on the current and possibly on the next generation. I see that in Cuba when I visit. I have seen that in Spain and Italy where I have holidayed. Old age is stereotyped. That’s why The Bear Came over the Mountain left me mentally paralysed and unable to write. It is a different world Alice Munro writes about with very real characters. There is love aplenty in the story. Natural, ageless love. But there is also love that leads to wrong decision-making. Fiona falls for a man, Aubrey, at Meadowlake. Her mental state doesn’t let her realise that she is still married to Grant. The latter comes to visit her twice per week and becomes an unwilling witness to the development of his wife’s romance with Aubrey. The Bear,,, is a short story that hurts. It is also a story full of grey areas, because senescence is hardly a black and white issue. The movie is just as nuanced with Julie Christie in top form in the role of Fiona.

One of the many misconceptions of old age is that the elderly envy the young. I don’t believe so. Or, at least, I don't believe it is applicable to everyone. It is true that there are activities that become off limits with the passing of time. That might make some people yearn for better health and robustness. Yet, since old age is just another stage in life’s grand journey, the key word is adaptation. I am lucky in that I have three very close role models. My mother still works at the same copyright agency she joined when I was nine years old. She is seventy-six. My father, at seventy-one, still gigs as a pianist. He has been forced to reduce his working hours but his skills are as sharp as they were when he still lived with me. Lastly, my mother-in-law, who turned eighty earlier this year, still composes (she is a singer song-writer) and has an active life.

The other often mistaken notion is that old people do not have sexual lives. This is partly based on the same youth-, beauty-obsessed attitude I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The idea of big, wrinkled bellies, sagging breasts and grey, pubic hairs might be a turn-off for many. And not just for the young, mind you. However, sex is just as important to someone who is seventy as it is to someone who is twenty-seven. Perhaps what changes is the intention and the setting. I would like to believe that there is more intimacy, closeness, love and romance involved. There is a beautiful passage in The Bear Came over the Mountain that clearly proves my theory: “Grant skied for exercise. He skied around and around in the field behind the house as the sun went down and left the sky pink over a countryside that seemed to be bound by waves of blue-edged ice. Then he came back to the darkening house, turning the television news on while he made his supper. They had usually prepared supper together. One of them made the drinks and the other the fire, and they talked about his work (he was writing a study of legendary Norse wolves and particularly of the great wolf Fenrir, which swallows up Odin at the end of the world) and about whatever Fiona was reading and what they had been thinking during their close but separate day. This was their time of liveliest intimacy, though there was also, of course, the five or ten minutes of physical sweetness just after they got into bed—something that did not often end in sex but reassured them that sex was not over yet.”

Old age is not a faraway land full of wrinkled, drooling, absent-minded, incontinent and senile inhabitants. Old age is a land full of people who were once young and are now embarking on the last stage of their journey. A journey which should be as enjoyable as the ones that came before.

© 2013

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 30th October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Another superb post. You write in such a true way; honest and with much feeling.

    You are in an honourable profession and your students have a great teacher, judging by the way you write.

    And thanks for pointing to the short story! I have saved it for later and will, I'm sure, will be passing the link on to my friends.

  2. my students have asked me often about coloring my beard...why i just let it be grey as it makes me look older...i tell them i have embraced my grey...its all part of life you know...but yes, i see it all over the place in our superficial country....

  3. I am trying my very best to age gracefully with all the beauty and character that the good Lord lent to me on my bodily trek in this world.

    I loved this post.
    Thank you.

  4. I am trying my very best to age gracefully with all the beauty and character that the good Lord lent to me on my bodily trek in this world.

    I loved this post.
    Thank you.

  5. Oh how I adore this.
    It is beautiful, heart warming, and very encouraging.
    Most of us in the western world have been brought up to believe that we must do our utmost to remain "young and beautiful" for as long as possible...and if we fail? Then we are worthless.
    Utter nonsense!
    Why should old age make us any less worthy of respect than at any other age?
    In fact, it should bring increased respect. By old age a person has had so much experience of life. Younger people could learn a great deal from them...if only they could learn to reject the current mind set.
    I used to fear growing older, but no more.
    I will be the same person...only much wiser (I hope!!):)

  6. The grey and whatever else i don't care, just superficial crap. But the whole bones creaking, not fun lol

  7. I am old... though I will not show more of it than I can help.... and I am enjoying this new phase that I've entered. Fortunately my faculties are intact or at least I think they are, however, for more enlightenment I might just read that book. Thank you so much for this interesting and valuable post.

  8. Thank you. If I was ever offered the opportunity to be young again I would decline. Without a second thought.
    I have earned my grey hairs and wrinkles, and couldn't face teenage anxt again. I have a much more comfortable acceptance of my place in the world. And am not alone.
    And I also really admire Alice Monroe's powerful, elegant, truthful prose.

  9. Such a beautiful, insightful post. I will be 69 at my next birthday and am coming to terms with the realization that this is the last act of my life. I want it to be a full, creative, compassionate period - not always easy, given how many in our culture despise and/or demonize old age.

  10. Beautiful, beautiful post -- with such a note of hope.

  11. I have read your post and the comments, CiL, and I dare say none of you have spent any recent time in a nursing home or have any close relatives who live in one or have watched the rapid mental and/or physical deterioration of a family member in an "up close and personal" manner. At least, that is what it seems like to me.

    I suppose the definition of "old age" varies and I am not talking about someone who moves into an "assisted living complex" designed for people who essentially are able to care for themselves, but who need a little help. The quality of life in old age is almost exclusively dependent upon a person's health (both physical and mental), and whether he has family support or is alone in the world.

    I will not go into further detail and I do not know the English system of operating what in the U.S. are called nursing homes, but I would suggest anyone who believes the average resident of one is happy with their situation become a volunteer to help by visiting those who do not have family support or to contribute to the residents in any manner possible.

    In the U.S., some teachers often bring their students to nursing homes to sing a song or two and to visit. Most "old timers" love it, and it is an excellent way to acclimate youngsters to the truly elderly. It might be a project for you, CiL.

    I enjoy posts which make people think .... your posts always do that very well.

  12. Saludos desde Ecuador amigo, que empieces bien la semana.

  13. when I was 15 I thought if was impossible to become 35 as my aunt. oday I am past my sixties. If I envy the young? No I feel sorry for them. To go through all those stupid thing that life brings to you. No, I don´t envy them.

  14. A wonderful post and Munro is a wonderful writer. So glad that she won the prize. thanks for highlighting this story. I am on a bus so can't write more coherentlyZ. Karin of manicddaily

  15. Oh, to use Alice Munro as the basis for this smart reflection is such a nice move. Munro gets her due and all (hello, Nobel!), but I still think her contributions are underrated. She's doing some magical things with her writing.

    So are you. We need to think about aging, and not as a thing to be dreaded or a "poor them" stage of life. I know I have, quite deliberately, identified a few people in my life who are aging admirably, and I tuck away their examples for future reference.

  16. A genius post, dear. Speaks to me wisely. Thanks So much


  17. I like what you say. The last stage of life can be as vibrant and fulfilling as the earlier ones. I find as I age things actually get better, I view the world from a more peaceful place. And I don't envy the young. Good post.

  18. Many thanks for your comments.

    On writing this post I focused on the way we portray old age. My post was an antithesis. Yes, old age is not just a different stage, the last one, as it happens. It's full of challenges. That's why some elderly people do drool, some others are incoherent when they express themselves, some others lose their minds. But I would like to believe that senescence is about more than that. It's the same that happens when people say "Teenagers are..." and you expect stereotypes to fly out of the person's mouth. Old people don't fare any better. I have been to a home for people with Alzheimer's and other ailments and no, it's not funny. It's depressing, that's the truth. But those people are not all old people. Those people are individuals. We cannot say that at such and such age this is what will happen to you because it might not happen. It is easier to stereotype than to understand.

    I'm glad this post has caused such a wide variety of opinions. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  19. Another thought, CiL:

    In addition to my personal knowledge with a grandmother and a mother, my experience includes journalistic work in the sense of nursing home mistreatment and abuse of its residents. This alone, makes me skeptical of what goes on out of sight. You see? Much of your post came to me in terms of old age within a nursing home as opposed to old age among those who, more-or-less, are capable of independent living. As it is, in many ways I do not consider anyone capable of independent living as being old except in a bureaucratic sense.

    The mechanism to me is not physical age; it is physical and mental health and independence, which is beyond our control. True old age, therefore, to me is the inability to care for one's self.

  20. Hear hear! Europe really does seem to be obssessed with youth and beauty - such a shame as we can be enriched by the elderly too.

  21. How can I comment thoughtfully when I've welled up from this beautiful post? You've captured a serious problem in today's society (the obsession with youth & the side-lining of all the gifts that old age brings) Reminds me of Keats' "Autumn, thou hast thou beauty too" Old age, too, has a certain beauty that youth will never have - spiritual wisdom, an ability to enjoy every one of the fleeting moments left to us on this earth and an acceptance that ageing and death are part of a far greater cycle than our small individual selves. A lovely post and I'm going to set up some tweets to share it!

  22. What a wonderful post. Thank you. From your heartfelt words to the tie-in to Munro's short story, this is a brilliant post from start to finish.

    For those of us who are growing older, (and aren't we all?) I think a good attitude and a sense of humor are very important to help ease us over the bumps. It isn't always easy, but as for me, I've never been happier. Those who worship youth will never be content, but to each his own.

  23. Ah Mario I love Alice Munro and Im so happy she won the nobel prize
    ;) about age I dont know some days I feel young like a girl:) and some days I feel old anyway isn't matter to me really I dont. Think in it so much! make me laugh a lot people is worry about age and is simple
    if you live will be old! And is not you will die we can' t choose :))))hugs dear

  24. A beautiful post celebrating this stage of life. It's funny how much younger 70 is now, than when I was 20.



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