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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