On Ageing

20 Sep 2022

My Father-in-Law asked for the Annual Report and Accounts for the British Library, and this was obtained for him.

“But I don’t recognise any of the names,” he said plaintively.

“They’ve probably all retired too,” I replied.

“But how can they all have retired?” he asked. “I only retired myself last March!”

I drew in a deep breath. What should I say? Eventually I said, “You retired in 1988; that’s more than thirty years ago.”

He looked at me with confusion. “So, what have I done for the past thirty years?”

He saw a new doctor last week. “She didn’t seem to know I am a research scientist and a fellow of the British Library!”

“Oh, I did tell her,” said my Sister-in-Law, untruthfully, but she’s mostly interested in your heart, you know.”

My Father-in-law was an Oxford scholar and coxed for the rowing team. He was an information scientist who travelled widely and wrote learned books. He was one of the four founders of the British Library. Now, he is a confused 94-year-old man in a care home. All his past academic status is as nothing. Here, he is the resident in room 2. His status with the staff in the care home is dependent upon their experience of him now. Is he a gentle man, with courteous manners, grateful for all that is done for him? Or is he a cankerous old so-and-so who vents a continuous litany of complaint, and becomes angry with everyone? Like most of us, he is both.

Watching the funeral yesterday, and reflecting upon my own recent health scare, I have become aware of our inescapable mortality. A daily meditation email I get, is running a series on how we respond to our inevitable ageing.

As the years pass, there will be more and more we cannot do; there will be dreams we will never realise. Old age is never described as the apex of achievement; it is not victory. It does not need, however, to be a mere fading away. This meditation series likens the process to “ripening.”

What does this “ripening” look like? It is described as an increased tolerance for ambiguity, a growing sense of subtlety, a larger ability to include and allow, and a capacity to live with contradictions – and even to love them.

I hope my Father-in-Law can accept he retired both last year and in 1988; that his legs can take him running and buckle as he walks the twenty metres to the dining room. His children and I can love both the rapier-witted academic, and the confused old man.

I hope for myself peace and acceptance – and even a joy in relinquishment. Anger and bitterness do no good. I hope, like our late Queen, to stay in service; even when that service becomes more an ideal than a practicality. And then to accept, with graciousness, the service done for me.

So, I’m not afraid of old age. And, as they say, wrinkles don’t hurt.


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Sept. 21, 2022, 6:30 a.m.

Good Morning Mary A very appropriate Post as I approach another milestone birthday. The years fly by but there is still so much to savour and enjoy. Your FIL sounds great company and has 94 years of memories to draw upon. As a founder of the British Library is must have hundreds of stories to tell! We are all getting older and must appreciate what we can enjoy now and also share memories with our ageing companions. There are always things to look forward to whatever age you are. Lovely writing again, thank Mary. Txx


Mary Wednesday

Sept. 21, 2022, 9:56 a.m.

Thank you, Teg.


Sept. 21, 2022, 6:33 a.m.

Both comforting and alarming but at the same time resonating with my current struggles mentally, a good blog and thought provoking, thanks Mary. Trying to practice the art of living in the moment, neither looking back with regret nor forward with alarm, but remembering times pleasurable past, relishing the current comfortable and fulfilled lifestyle, and trying to achieve positive forward thinking. If I keep running those thoughts hopefully my mood will catch up with them, and I can chain the black ****** snapping at me.


Mary Wednesday

Sept. 21, 2022, 9:57 a.m.

I wish you well, Mortimer. Hoping you banish the black dog.


Sept. 21, 2022, 6:39 a.m.

Earlier this year I helped my gf's 88 year old father get back on his feet just enough for him to pass the admissions "test" to enter a care home. My gf was surprised that the rehab worked, so was her father. They thought it was all over but no, he had genuine rehab potential. I know what to expect as I age too. Earlier this week I was searching for a word. I had a profound sadness but couldn't think of the right way to describe it, but it was a feeling connected with getting older. I settled on something like, "nostalgia for my youth". There is a physicality of youth which is of its time. I'm not an old fool, and I can't think of anything more naff than a bloke my age chasing after a younger person. So the nostalgia-feeling was realising those experiences will not come my way again. With it came the remembering of what turned out to be the last time that was in my life. So it's a letting go, a saying goodbye. (And a wistful longing to have made more of it at the time.) I suspect there's a lot more of that to get used to. Thanks for the blog Mary.


Mary Wednesday

Sept. 21, 2022, 10:01 a.m.

Thank you, Oli. As always, your comments are pertinent and thoughtful.


Sept. 21, 2022, 7:04 a.m.

Hi Mary. This is a very pertinent blog. I thought of myself in my twenties, this confused, passionate, emotional young person. Losing my mum at 26, I was confronted with lots of uncomfortable things. I was determined, and still am, to live beyond her 58. I have promised myself that I need to live longer in Scotland than I have lived in England so it shall be. When I worked at a care home as an activities co-ordinator, I wondered about all the lost stories contained within each person... one had been a ballerina and there was a photograph of her on her bedroom. The care staff didn't see the ballerina within her... they didn't have time and they have a snapshot in front of them of who that person is now but there are so many layers. I always think it is a terrible shame that these stories aren't captured now, whilst the person is still alive, that becomes an actual record and you build this up with that person, however you can, that it becomes their own personal document that they can refer to, and reminisce about, if they wish. Then when the person passes, it is given to the next generation... and on it goes. I am trying to do that for my dad, even though he passed away in 2012. I plan to give it to my nephew, and it will record not only memories from Dad's time before myself and my brother were born, but as a family. A box of photographs will not mean too much to him unless properly documented. Quite a big task but one for the winter I think! There are all so many stories within in our skin and I think we do a big honour to record those, not just for ourselves but for others. Thanks so much for this blog x


Mary Wednesday

Sept. 21, 2022, 10:04 a.m.

So many stories within our skin: exactly! Wise words, indeed.


Sept. 21, 2022, 7:55 a.m.

Hi Mary thanks so much for the blog. It hit a raw spot, as maybe none of us likes to think that we are getting older., frailer & more dependent. I made a note of some of your comments in my diary so as to go over later.


Mary Wednesday

Sept. 21, 2022, 10:07 a.m.

I am sorry to have upset you. Acceptance is hard. But there is much to be happy about.

The Gardener

Sept. 21, 2022, 11:23 a.m.

Mary, I wanted to reply to this as I feel I am a bit of an expert. However the day has run away from me - when I have finished giving tea to Germans in my garden I might come back - I am being 'labelled' old at the moment, don't like it - accept being old and making the best of it but HATE being put in a category.


Mary Wednesday

Sept. 21, 2022, 12:31 p.m.

You may guess you were on my mind as I submitted this. I thought, "Who am I to submit this, when The Gardener is such a wonderful example of this ripening?" I hoped you would not be angered by it. And, oh, labels and categories are odious, yet inescapable!

The Gardener

Sept. 21, 2022, 4:03 p.m.

Angered, no way - more and more i am aware of my 'luck'. I have been talking since 9.30 this morning, 40 minutes break. English, French, Germans (don't talk German). I wish I know where the inner 'spirit' comes from, I have lost any faith I may have had, but just love people - since the week-end talked to several total strangers People say it is a 'gift' I am convinced it is training, and multi-generational.


Sept. 21, 2022, 2:01 p.m.

what a great post--thank you. So appropriate for me as I sit here at 63 dealing with the fact that I am aging. I went back to therapy for this. I was (and for the most part still am), very active. But there are some things I can no longer do, and i have been mourning that and learning how to deal. Would you be willing to share the mediation newsletter on aging? Thank you.


The Gardener

Sept. 21, 2022, 4:05 p.m.

Gabriel, you really make me aware of my age! My eldest son is older than you!

Mary Wednesday

Sept. 21, 2022, 9:18 p.m.

It is a daily meditation by Richard Rohr, who is a Franciscan Priest. https://cac.org/daily-meditations/


Sept. 21, 2022, 3:14 p.m.

I am now old,and I wish I could say that I don't envy the young,because I really do.I also fear death and increasing infirmity,and don't get me started on wrinkles! " I am not afraid of dying,I just don't want to be there when it happens" -Woody Allen.


The Gardener

Sept. 21, 2022, 4:23 p.m.

Valerie, I don't like Woody Allen, love the quote. I've been struggling with low spirits, death of my son, nuisance of not driving in UK, hating getting up in the morning. But, not to sound 'pi' every day is a bonus, today outstanding, plus possibility of two new projects, both extremely challenging. Being 'challenged' I see as an extra bonus. France is doing incredible scientific programmes on Global warming, I am glued to the screen.

Mary Wednesday

Sept. 21, 2022, 9:19 p.m.

You know what they say - youth is wasted on the young!

The Gardener

Sept. 21, 2022, 4:16 p.m.

Phew, back - a 'red letter day' of meeting people. Said I was an 'expert'. Stick to it. Own age. My mother lived to nearly 100, m-in-law over a hundred. Mr G Alzheimers and last year in a care home, horrid for relatives, the sufferers knew nothing. I think worst situation is the Residence I go to. They must be autonomous, not a care home. They have all given up independence. Most widowed, scared of living alone, falling, coping with responsibilites. Many (written of this before) women whose husband won't let them drive, do anything with finances. Husband pops off suddenly, they are bereft. What you say about f-in-law applied in a small way to Mr G. He went back, in his mind, to his days of management, in charge of staff, responsibility. It was pretty awful because despite his situation he said the care home was badly run, knew what should be done, treated the beleagured staff like employees (they'd seen it all before). It's sad, they go back to the time when they MATTERED. Something I am struggling with. Thank you Mary



Sept. 21, 2022, 5:57 p.m.

Indeed, how important it is to matter! Together with my lovely partner (we got married last week) we've been dealing with their aged step-parent who will endlessly tell me about the war and the time when no-one knew how to eat a banana because it was such a different thing that no one had seen before, and the wonderful time they had in Bainbridge as a refugee from the bombing in Sunderland. And I remembered my own grandmother telling me about the first time she saw an aeroplane flying around the racecourse even though she was unsure of who I was in particular. And of course that made me think of Dylan Thomas: "Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the colour of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlours, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed." :)

Mary Wednesday

Sept. 21, 2022, 9:07 p.m.

Talking to strangers comes from interest, an expression of Love. I think our faith becomes loose as we find old beliefs no longer serve us, but I do not belief faith is lost; it is transformed. The thing is, we no longer have a fast hold on it, and we can no longer see how it works, so we think it's gone. I dont, however, think it's ever really lost.

Mary Wednesday

Sept. 21, 2022, 9:09 p.m.

Grrr... that was the reply to the post above. Sorry. I meant to say, how lovely these words are! Thank you for sharing them. I really must read more of him.

The Gardener

Sept. 21, 2022, 4:30 p.m.

Re-read blog, last thoughts. I think the 'higher' the person, academically, the worse the end if it is awful and drags. I believe the chancellor of an Oxford college had early onset dementia, my b-in-law knew him. A grand-son of Sir Peter Hall, I think, saw an old recording of his grand-father - the child said he did not know Grand-pa could talk, he had seen this brilliant man with dementia. Did anybody see Judy Dench as 'Iris'? Absolutely harrowing, I could not watch it again.



Sept. 21, 2022, 7:01 p.m.

And I couldn't resist this one, from Noel Coward, having spent my honeymoon in Budleigh Salterton “Time is the reef upon which all our mystic ships are wrecked.” :)


Sept. 21, 2022, 9:28 p.m.

"After Life" with Ricky Gervais. I highly recommend it. It's a very sad and "happy" series on Netflix.


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