Sunday, May 29, 2016

How to have a happy old age

Some of Diana Athill's books in my collection. A favourite is her memoir Stet about her four-decade editing career at the Deutsch publishing firm in London.
We don't get to hear from the dead, and we seldom get to hear from 97-year-olds who are approaching that state. In Alive, Alive Oh!, a collection of essays published last year, famed British editor and writer Diana Athill helps fill that gap. Memories, it turns out, are really, really important when you're old. Athill, who was born in 1917, lived something of a charmed life that enabled her to build up a huge repertoire of wonderful memories -- the beautiful garden of her grandparents' Norfolk country estate, the green waters of Venice, the scent of a bluebell wood in Yorkshire, the "splendiferous" Folk Museum at Santa Fe. As she accumulated these memories, she didn't know she was storing them up, but now they come tumbling out to enliven and brighten her days. Athill writes about the excruciating decision to move into a tiny room in a seniors' home, which forced her to discard a lifetime of treasures, especially her books. Knowing that at her age, a person can be reduced to helplessness "almost overnight," she made the move pre-emptively to spare her friends and relatives the worry about what could happen to her. Her seniors' home is run by a charity with strong principles about treatment of residents, and after some adjusting, Athill loves her life there. Some gems from her book worth thinking about, whatever stage of life we're at:

"Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view, it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman's idle days pleasant instead of boring." (Introduction, page 5)

"I came home, sat down in my little sitting room, looked round at the magpie's nest of beloved things accumulated in a long lifetime, and felt: 'But this is me.' The extent to which a personality depends on the space it occupies and the objects it possesses appeared to me at that moment overwhelming. How could I perform an act of what amounted to self-destruction? The answer was: I can't! I can't and I won't, I'd rather die." (On learning she could move into the seniors' home, p. 103-4)

"The likeness to being at boarding school can't be wholly denied, but is very superficial, and alarm at so much oldness is simply resentment of one's own old age -- something one gets used to because of having no alternative. Anyone here who persists in it soon begins to seem absurd." (On her two big fears about moving into the home -- that it would be like boarding school, and that it was full of old people, p .111)

"Nothing could be more deliciously luxurious than being pushed around a really thrilling and crowded exhibition in a wheelchair. The crowd falls away on either side like the Red Sea parting for the Israelites, and there you are, lounging in front of the painting of your choice in perfect comfort." (On why the elderly shouldn't dread wheelchairs, p. 130)

1 comment:

  1. t's very liberating to get rid of "things" as I found out 3 years ago when we moved and finding out again since we are moving again. Ah...the wheelchair. I marvelled at a friend's elderly and frail parents doing the trans Atlantic flight for various family reunions in Ireland and D Day celebrations in France. She told me they requested the wheelchair service so were whisked to the front of the lines, luggage looked after, and usually got upgraded to First Class since they were these "poor little old people". I have many wonderful memories of our life and used to fear losing them to dementia but recent research is beginning to take a new view to that. The idea is that there is too much focus on the loss of memory and that the person is still the person with the same characteristics and values as they ever had. I found it an interesting take. Well, Carol and I will have our blogs to remind us of things or perhaps it will read like a fascinating memoir of someone else!