Tag Archives: old

Learning to be old

There are three authors of New Age of Ageing. I am one. I asked the other two to reflect on what writing the book meant to each of them. This month, on her return from holiday, Eileen writes about three important contradictions, conundrums and challenges about ageing.

  1. Performing old
  2. Covering the signs of ageing
  3. Not heading for the scrap heap.
Eileen on air at the BBC

Eileen on air at the BBC

This is what Eileen Carnell wrote for Bookword blog:

It has been an absolute joy to work with Caroline and Marianne over the last two years writing our new book The New Age of Ageing: How society needs to change. We interviewed fascinating people and carried out numerous searches. The most stimulating part of the process was the dialogue we had together creating new ways of understanding the issues and then finally creating our vision to conclude the book. The whole process was extremely challenging, fun and inspiring.

Reflecting now, just over a month before publication date, has been useful in highlighting some contradictions, conundrums and challenges about ageing that I have found particularly striking.

Performing old?

I was excited when I came across the idea that we learn to ‘perform’ or act old. As a feminist researcher I was aware of the concept of performing gender. Relating the idea to ageing was incredibly useful. I was amused by what Ruth said: ‘I am aware of changes, hearing myself making sitting down and standing up noises like an old person’. There are clear rules in our society about what old people should and shouldn’t do and wear and behave, just as there are clear expectations for women in our society.

Jenny’s remarks nicely illustrate the idea that we learn to perform old:

Me and my partner are experimenting with being old for a few days … he’s had a hernia repair, I pulled a muscle in my hip. … S’interesting the sorts of things that one might need to get ‘a young person’ in for eventually … changing the bed linen for starters.

I like the ironic tone of this message. Jenny knows the situation is temporary – a rehearsal. But beneath the message speaks truth – an agreed cultural understanding of performing ‘old’ and how relationships with family, friends and younger people change as a result. Those who fail to conform are criticised or ridiculed. When Mike was preparing for a triathlon, aged 70, friends said ‘You must be mad at your age, you crazy man of excess. Why don’t you just put your feet up?’ The dominant image of older people is of decline – take that road sign of bent old people with sticks for example.

230 road sign

A contradiction emerges. There is a powerful message in our society that it is our duty to age well and healthily. That means being super fit and active for as long as possible, regardless of social background, economic status or level of physical ability. A blame issue develops: ‘they should have looked after themselves’.

Reading the work of Lorna Warren and Amanda Clarke helped me make sense of this conundrum. They draw attention to the idea that in attempting to counterbalance the ubiquitous images of decline it is important not to create new unachievable oppressions of physically fit, creative, active, adventurous ageing (see note 1). When writing I recognised the temptation to overdo the positive aspects which gives weight to this new tyranny.

Covering signs of age?

Part of the tyranny is to hide signs of ageing – age denial. My sister Sheila, who was the prettiest of us three siblings, sent me a picture of her new face following Botox treatments. I was shocked and saddened, but in her 60s she was entitled to make this decision, although I felt it spoilt her looks, making her face looked ironed and her smile forced. But when I saw the headline: ‘Pageant Mom Gives Botox to 8-Year-Old’ that revealed the story of a mother administering Botox to hide her daughter’s wrinkles I was horrified (note 2). We three authors spent a long time considering our own attitudes towards the cover up. We agreed that this example of seeking perfection was an extreme form of cultural oppression. But where do you draw the line? Opinion is divided. Some see the use of cosmetics and treatments as empowering. It is clear that beauty ideals dominate many women’s lives and there is a growing belief that ageing is like a disease that can be cured. Subsequently the cosmetic business exploits women’s fears. I have come to the conclusion that if we persist as a society in hiding age then we will never re-educate ourselves to see beauty in the faces and spirits of older people.

Heading for the scrap heap?

Society does something strange to us as we age. We are no longer valued participants but seen as a burden, a problem or redundant. While many older people want to contribute they find it difficult to find ways to share their skills. Ray expressed his frustration after he retired from his role as a surgeon in a teaching hospital:

It’s such a waste. I could be a mentor or use my wisdom in other ways in an advisory capacity. I have so many transferable skills and it’s as if nothing I did in my professional life has any value any more. I feel I am on the scrap heap.

This is so sad. The challenge is to create structures and forums so that older people can share their wisdom and experience rather than leave it to chance.

I met an inspiring retiree, called Mo, who moved to a village in South Africa to set up a school. She said:

For me the way forward is clear – to tap into the global wisdom of so many who have reached retirement. There is immeasurable wisdom which could have a huge impact on so many in the world today.

I like the clear statement that old people need to be recognised as ‘assets rather than burdens … active contributors, not passive recipients’ (note 3).

Many older people, like Mo, do find ways to benefit society. We came across many who are still active in local, national or international politics and are vociferous in campaigning for a better world and in fighting ageism. The penultimate chapter of the book celebrates their contributions demonstrating there is no shortage of older radicals.

 

References

(1) Warren, L. and Clarke, A. (2009) ‘“Woo-hoo, what a ride!” Older people, life stories and active ageing’, in R. Edmondson and H.J. von Kondratowitz (eds) Valuing older people: A humanist approach to ageing, Bristol: Policy Press, p 244.

(2) ABC News (2011) Pageant Mom Gives Botox to 8-Year-Old Daughter: How Young Is Too Young? May 12, 2011. By Hagan, K., Kunin, S. & Ghebremmedhin. S. via GoodMorning America. (Accessed 23.06.15).

243 New Age cover(3) Roberts, Y. (2012) One Hundred Not Out: resilience and active ageing. London: The Young Foundation.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman. To be published by Policy Press on 7th September 2016.

Related posts

We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing our book. Earlier posts include

Ageing: it is not ‘them and us’, it is all ‘us’ by Marianne Coleman (June 2016)

Getting feedback to improve our writing (May)

First Catch Your Publisher (April)

One Book, Three Authors (March)

Writers’ Residential (February)

 

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Filed under Books, Learning, Publishing our book, Writing

Learning about Ageing from Mrs Palfrey

Mrs Palfrey is the main character in Elizabeth Taylor’s 1971 novel – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. She featured in the very first post about older women in fiction on this blog, which considered how an older woman was represented in fiction. Here I want to explore what we can learn from Mrs Palfrey about how older people are treated.

mrspalfrey green

The story

Mrs Palfrey is a widow, whose daughter does not want her to share her life in Scotland. Mrs Palfrey finds an advert for residential accommodation in the Claremont Hotel, Cromwell Road, London. When she arrives she finds that a group of similarly aged people are already in residence. They share no connection beyond the hotel, but they have loneliness, reduced economic resources and declining physical capacities in common.

External contacts feature large in the social life of the older people at the Claremont, and Mrs Palfrey is pleased to have a grandson working at the British Museum, and she confidently expects an early visit. Not only will this provide her with company but also enhance her status in the residents’ small world.

When Desmond fails to visit she encourages Ludo to stand in for him. Ludo rescued Mrs Palfrey when she fell outside his bedsitter, and he willingly agrees to act as her grandson. Inevitably le vrai Desmond appears and confusions abound. Much of the narrative is concerned with Mrs Palfrey’s relationship with Ludo.

This novel offers a stark reminder of what it is to be old, and especially how the old are treated. But it is not depressing. There are cheerful spirits, warmth and enjoyment to be experienced.

Let us count the ways old people are treated.

  1. Family neglect

None of the old people would live in the Claremont if their families had taken them in. They all rely on their families for visits, trips out and material for social interactions. But the families for the most part see the old people as a duty.

Mrs Post is waiting anxiously for a cousin, but it is raining.

A summer’s evening drive had been promised, with a picnic. It was a yearly occurrence, and gave the cousin, who was ten years younger than Mrs Post, a sense of duty done which might last her, with any luck, for the following twelve months. [Mrs Post said] ‘As one gets older life becomes all take and no give. One relies on other people for the treats and things. It’s like being an infant again.’ (129-130)

Mrs Arbuthnot leaves the Claremont for alternative accommodation ‘Her indefatigable sisters had found it for her, and much humiliation she had borne while they were doing so.’ (102). She needs a place where ‘someone must be paid to dry up after her’ for she has wet her bed on several occasions.

When her grandson does not turn up at the Claremont Mrs Palfrey makes unsuccessful attempts to invite old friends who find excuses not to visit her.

  1. Economic exploitation

Choosing to provide care for the elderly as a commercial enterprise does not guarantee the quality of the care, or attention to needs. The management of the Claremont barely welcomes the older people, treating them as an inconvenience rather than guests.

The receptionist was coldly kind, as if she were working in a nursing-home, and one for deranged patients at that. (2)

Mrs Palfrey considers the outlook from the room she has been allocated.

From the window she could see – could see only – a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered, and a cast-iron fire-escape which was rather graceful. She tried to see it that it was graceful. The outlook – especially on this darkening afternoon – was daunting; but the backs of hotels, which are kept for indigent ladies, can’t be expected to provide a view, she knew. The best is kept for honeymooners, though God alone knew why they should require it. (3)

And of course, the quality of the food, served in a three week menu rotation, is very poor, despite mealtimes being important markers in the institutional day.

And when Mrs Palfrey falls just outside the hotel, the manager Mr Wilkins wants her out of sight, more concerned to remove this embarrassment from the pavement than with her best interests.

  1. Regard them as Eccentric

It can be dismaying to consider the darker side of old age, the loneliness, physical decline, neglect and ultimate death. To distance themselves from these aspects of age many of the reviews of this book on other blogs describe the residents as eccentric. They are not.

Mrs Arbuthnot is malicious, spikey and unkind. She is also crippled with pain from arthritis, and suffering the humiliation of incontinence.

Mrs Post is anxious, always out of her depth, especially beyond the walls of the hotel, getting the right library books for Mrs Arbuthnot, or dealing with sharing the fare for a taxi.

Mr Osmond tells dirty jokes in a loud whisper to any man he can buttonhole, and likes to hold himself aloof from the ladies. He writes complaining letters to the Daily Mail of the ‘It would never have happened in former times …’ He is hopelessly out of his depth in dealing with slight acquaintances at a Masonic dinner and in his expectations of Mrs Palfrey.

Lady Swayne makes the most appalling prejudiced and bigoted announcements, prefacing them with ‘I’m afraid …’

I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common-or-garden Church of England. I’m afraid I’d like to see the Prime Minister hanged, drawn and quartered. I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny. (81)

Mrs Burton who loves to drink with her brother-in-law, or without him.

These people are all trying to cope with the difficulties of ageing. And while we might not condone some responses, they can hardly be described as eccentric – that is unusual or strange. Elizabeth Taylor’s craft is in revealing why they behave in these ways.

The film adaptation (2006) locates the story in the early 21st century, makes much less of the privations of age, and rather encourages the idea of eccentricity. I didn’t like it at all.

  1. Having respect

The delightful Ludo is respectful, attentive and helpful to Mrs Palfrey in a way that none of her family manages.

Mrs Palfrey grey

Learning from Mrs Palfrey

Despite all this, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is both a funny and an uplifting book. There is plenty of comedy narrated in Elizabeth Taylor’s controlled and wry style.

Mrs Palfrey has a three-part code of behaviour:

Be independent; never give way to melancholy; never touch capital. (9)

She struggles with all three and frequently has a word with herself when she begins to feel down. To be old and alone may be difficult, suggests Elizabeth Taylor, but there is dignity and new experiences to be had at any age.

In this delightful novel Elizabeth Taylor does a great job of respecting older people and sympathetically revealing the challenges they face. She doesn’t lump all older people together, shows us individuals coping in the face of difficulties. She uses wit and humour to point up how people respond to each other to protect themselves from these difficulties.

168 AgeUKWriting 40 years ago she identified an enduring feature of old age. Loneliness is still a killer for old people, even in a busy city like London. (God bless the Freedom Pass). There is a campaign end loneliness and AgeUK has also highlighted the issue.

Elizabeth Taylor did not live to be old herself, she died of breast cancer aged 63, her family still close to her. Yet she knew what it was to be treated with disdain, impatience, contempt and neglect in old age. We see all of these in this book.

§§§

I must thank my book group for enhancing my understanding of this book.

I have reviewed all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels on this website. You can access them by clicking on the category Novels by Elizabeth Taylor or Elizabeth Taylor in the Tags.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was the first book to be reviewed in the older women in fiction series. You can see the complete list here.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor published by Virago Modern Classics 206pp

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Learning, Older women in fiction, Reading