Sunday, 31 March 2013

Making Peace with Aging and Infirmity


On holiday in Cat Island, Bahamas recently, something happened.  Regular readers of my blog might recall that I’ve blogged about Cat Island before – it’s a remarkable place in its beauty, its simplicity and its authentic (but few) inhabitants. 

Last year, I visited an 87 year old firecracker called Miss Ella Sweeting.  Back then, Miss Ella sang  us a couple of rap songs and explained raucously that she had been banned from calling in to the Eleuthera radio station for over-using that privilege.  She was, what you might call ‘a going concern’.



This year, I dropped in again to visit Miss Ella.  Her straw work roadside stall was empty of wares, but the door was open, so I knocked and stepped inside.  There was a tiny frail woman sitting by the television.  She wore an ill-fitting black wig.  I asked if Miss Ella was in.  “I’m Miss Ella – that’s me”.  But, it wasn’t.  This woman was shrunken – her face sad.  There was no light in her eyes and she had lost so much weight that I was forced to stare, searching for the Ella I knew.



We drove back to our little beach cottage and collected groceries and cash, delivering them to our elderly friend.  Then I stopped in to “Yardies”, a local conch shack and gas station down the road.  I stopped the owner, Odette, and expressed my concern about Miss Ella’s decline.  “Yes”, nodded Odette, “her pension cheque ran out and she’s getting old.  She’s just old, that’s all.”

I have been thinking about that statement every day since we returned home from the island.  

I wondered about why I thought Odette's acceptance of the inevitability of aging was so culturally different from my own ideas of infirmity.  Recently, my mother has been ill with complications of her own advanced age - she is 92.  I get frustrated with her when she refuses to call the doctor about her pain or dizzy spells.  I want my mother to seek medical attention and to be 'cured' of her ailments.  I am so used to pestering professionals about my son Nicholas' litany of conditions.  Most recently, I have been on the road and on the phone trying to sort out a recent jump in the number of seizures he suffers each day.  

Odette's voice has been in my head with her knowing, sad explanation to me of a simple fact of life - that life ends, and it's not easy, but.... there we are.  

I am a natural-born crusader and acceptance is a state that does not come to easily to me.  But I think I need to be more humble in the face of the forces of nature.  Nicholas has a disability that cannot be cured.  The clock cannot turn back the years that my mother has lived on this earth.  

Next year, when we return to Cat Island, will Miss Ella greet me with a song or even a sigh?  I don't know.  But either way, I will return to Odette and seek her guidance on how to better accept the inevitability of struggle and pain in those we love.

Listen to what Dr. Gerda Lerner says about aging - her reflections are profound.  Dr. Lerner was a historian, author and teacher.  She was one of the founders of the field of women's history and taught history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Duke University.




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