Friday, 31 May 2013

Writing can form the basis of an engaged old age

This is a picture of my mother and father, in the 50s, dancing together, before I was born. She was beautiful, my mother, and gregarious. Her thing was the New Theatre, a left-of-centre acting troupe active in Melbourne at the time. Because her father was a Communist, my mother was involved in left-of-centre activities throughout her childhood but her priorities changed when her brother Geoff one day brought home, to visit, a young man he'd met at university, where the two men studied engineering. I assume this photo was taken after my mother and father married in 1955, the year after her father Harry died. If so, it can stand as an emblem of a happy marriage. So let's zip through time - two children, both boys, my mother working in her gift shop, first in Melbourne then in Sydney, her husband's career, cooking meals (faster, faster) and making a household a going concern, my father's retirement, travel, relocation to Queensland, my father's dementia, his death, and then living in old age herself - to the present, where I care for my mother and make sure her household runs smoothly. Whew!

It's a surreal diaorama when you think about it. How does a healthy young woman in her 20s segue with such extraordinary speed to become a frail old woman in her 80s, with various complaints, and who lives alone since her partner of almost 60 years has gone from this world? And what does that woman do who used to be so gregarious - theatre friends, dating her future husband, children's school activities, running a shop and dealing with customers and suppliers, travelling and meeting new people overseas - once the mechanical realities of old age work to confine her largely to a single location - her apartment - even though what she enjoys more than anything is a good chat?

I think that isolation is a big problem for the elderly and so when I look at the entirety of my mother's situation I tend to file away the images in my mind to use to inform how my own old age might look. The matter of the internet is worth mentioning. My father's work in the automation industry early brought him into contact with digital networks, so he knew about the internet, but his thinking motivated him to reject it. He feared that someone might hack into his files and never got a modem installed. He was also suspicious of the ways the internet was being used, and distrusted the kinds of content that it delivered in its early years. So my parents never had the internet in their retirement. As a result my mother never learned how to use it. She had a computer from the 90s to do word processing but changes in the standard GUI since that time have meant that she is unfamiliar with new models and operating systems. I have tried to teach her how to turn on and use her computer but I gave it up because we made no progress. The upshot is that my mother is denied access to the internet at a time in her life when it could provide her with the kinds of social interaction that she wants.

After my father died, just over two years ago, my mother experienced some depression stemming from grief. I saw first-hand how this works. A reluctance to get out of bed in the morning. A feeling of confusion and a lack of focus, poor motivation, a tendency to take naps. My mother then took off on a project to populate her walls with photographs of people from her youth; there are dozens of black-and-white portraits and colour photos showing individuals and groups of people. Her walls form a visual record of the past, displaying people she remembers and reminding her, now, during the routine of her daily life, of their stories. What they represent in her scheme of things. It's like a private family museum where she can think and remember a world that has almost completely disappeared from the real world that actually surrounds her.

My mother is almost the last of her generation. The rest are gone apart from a few people living in other cities. The first to go was my father's sister: dead from dementia. Then my mother's brother: dead from dementia. Then my father: dead from dementia. After all these deaths my mother survives and I want her to write about the past as my father did, after his retirement. In those 15 or so years as they traveled from place to place my father worked regularly on his memoir, always using my mother's superior spelling and grammatical knowledge to help polish it to a higher standard. As my mother cooked and cleaned and did the shopping my father worked on his laptop, eventually writing about 150 single-spaced A4 pages of his personal story. It extends to about the time we boys were born, then stops mid-sentence as if the effort required to conjure up images simply overcame his powers one day and after that failure he lost interest. In any case there can be no more A4 pages added to it now. The powers that are left to my mother however are not being used because of unfamiliarity with computers. And so all the stories that reside in memories connected to the photographs lining her walls will one day disappear and leave no trace in the world.

And there's nothing I can do about it. But these dilemmas suggest ways of doing old age that might apply in my own case. Coping with isolation is of course also a problem for me but internet technologies let me engage with the broader public sphere with an ease denied to earlier generations. Doing old age is also something that everyone - or at least those who are lucky enough to do so - will confront sooner or later. Because my mother's situation is personal for me it can serve as a guide to how I might do old age (if I arrive there at all). It can inform anyone's experience of old age, in fact. I think that to cope with old age it is important to have skills that enable you to engage broadly with others, and in the internet age the primary skill is literacy. Writing is also something that can realistically be performed even in old age, a time when physical constraints limit the options for everyone who experiences it. I think writing can, in many ways, form the basis of an engaged old age.


Anonymous said...

It may not help in your mother's case, Mathew, but my mother in law, who has always been leery of computers, took to using an iPad at 84, and now chides us when new comments are slow to appear in FB.

Matthew da Silva said...

Thanks, it's a good point and one that has been made to me by a family member. I just wonder if word processing can be done on an iPad effectively. I don't own one. Mum has one she uses to do video chat with my brother.