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