“Thank you, dear.” I passed her the walking stick that had fallen to the ground beside the table. She smiled politely then turned back to her friend and her eyes narrowed.
“You know, I reckon they are just pushing me one step closer.” The old lady punctuated the last three words with her teacup. I watched, fascinated, expecting its contents to spill over her friend. “They’ve all been nagging me. They just want to get me used to living in a coffin.” She banged the teacup onto its saucer, still without a drop spilled. I smiled at the inconsistency of her words, but my ears pricked up when she carried on, ticking off her points on her fingers. “There’s no stairs to keep me fit. No house left to clean to keep me moving, no garden to tend to get some fresh air, no-one I know to gossip with. If they get their way, I’ll be shoved in a box before I’m dead! They even brought me flowers!” She almost spat the last word. You could almost hear the funeral march in her tone…
I let my attention wander as she went on to assassinate the character of all her sons and especially her daughter-in-laws and their ancestors, going back several generations in her indignation. It would have been amusing to listen to the diatribe at the next table if it were not for the tragedy that was evidently unfolding. A family home, too big for her to cope with alone. A garden she could no longer manage. A tiny, warden-managed apartment close to a son’s home. It sounded as if her offspring were doing their best for her, but to her mind, they may as well have been digging her grave.
I can sort of understand it. Since my own move earlier this year, through choice, not quite a necessity of age, I have no stairs either. Nor is there much in the way of housework…and what there is, I can squarely lay blame for on the dog. The garden is easy to maintain…at least when the lawnmower works… and the whole flat is just fifteen paces square. Neighbours barely speak…being a new cul-de-sac, there is no long-standing community, and being a village it is a closed shop anyway. Without my work and the dog, I too would be lacking in company, movement, stimulation and exercise. But I love it here on the edge of the village. I have the fields to wander with the dog, wildlife everywhere and the whole panoply of stars sparkling at night.
I do miss the exercise of looking after a bigger place though, for all I have grumbled about sock-fluff and the amount of laundry made by the male of the species for years. It would be all too easy to allow myself to just grow old here, glued to the computer and moving only the few paces between bed, kettle and chair. Here, there is no real need to move much…it is a choice. Yet if I didn’t move, I’d seize up and any lack of activity makes me more tired than being active ever has. When I go north, on the other hand… I walk the moors, talk non-stop and stay up ridiculously late. Perversely, I feel ten years younger and more alive.
More than ever I am aware that the last echoes of youth are mine to use or lose. They say that growing old is a state of mind, but unless that mind does something to keep the body up to speed, the body will eventually slow us down far enough to beat us into submission.
The old lady was by this time roundly condemning the architects who had designed the shoe-box into which she was about to move, making the rather prejudiced assumption that they were all men….an epithet delivered in tones that spoke volumes. I could sympathise there too, as my bath is right opposite the kitchen window. At least in my case, they couldn’t have known that the dog objects to me shutting the bathroom door.
She was probably in her late seventies. Her stick bore witness to the body’s incipient mastery over mind, though her mind and wit were evidently needle-sharp. Her face bore the muscles and lines of severity and laughter… a live well-lived. I had to wonder if she had a point.
We make everything easy for ourselves…it is a luxury that technology and our improved living standards make possible. None of us would want to go back to the back-breaking labour of wash-board, dolly-tub and posser. Hoovers instead of broom and beater, central heating instead of carting coal, microwaves and instant everything… it is a wonderful contrast and a real improvement, especially for those who care for a home.
We don’t even have to converse any more… the flick of a switch can fill a home with sound and voices, instead of listening to granny tell endless tales of when she was a girl. We risk losing more than we realise, though, when the wisdom and knowledge of age echoes only within lonely walls.
Maybe there is a tipping point where we make things too easy for ourselves and, instead of prolonging life and health, we will begin to destroy it through lack of exercise and stimulation? I have to wonder where our quest for ease and reliance on the technology meant to serve us will lead us in the end…and how much of our lives we hand over into the care of others, man or machine.
The old lady can have the last word; she was determined to do so somewhere at least as she looked to her future…and possibly ours too. “I’ll be bored to death…”