What has happened to our old people in western society? The elders of our world - once revered and regarded as the wise ones - are these days (more often than not) categorised as the dotty old ones, forgotten by the larger community. While older generations in some cultures are still honoured as valued members of society, in most western countries they are often cast aside and placed in care facilities that increasingly don’t really care.
As such, we are now frequently seeing these once valued members of society medicated to the hilt, mainly to keep them sedated, and placed in controlled environments in order to keep them manageable.
At first glance it is easy to judge our “system” as at fault and that if society did ‘it’ better, then the situation wouldn’t be as bad as it is. But is this really the problem?
Perhaps we have to look at the whole situation from a different perspective.
Recently I visited my 87-year-old mother, who lives in a nursing home. My brother and I then took Mum to visit her sister, our Aunty, who lives in another, higher-care nursing home.
We sat with our Aunt for a while. She no longer knew who my brother and I were, yet did recognise her sister (our Mum). In the room were seven other elderly people, all staring aimlessly into space.
A lady called Mabel was having her 89th birthday. Mabel sat in a very low chair a chair almost on the floor; I found myself wondering why. She had her granddaughter visiting with her little baby. Once her visitors had left, Mabel began to try to get out of the chair. It was obvious that she couldn’t so I bent down and offered my help.
She turned and looked deeply into my eyes. My gaze locked with these amazing blue eyes and in that moment, our souls met and we connected.
“Can I help you up?” I asked.
She grasped my arm. She had been mumbling incoherently up until that point, but now spoke in crystal clear speech that surprised me.
“Promise me you will come again,” she said, looking even more intently.
Her eyes bored deep into the core of my very being.
“I promise,” I said without hesitation, despite the fact that I was in another country and visiting again would not be easy.
A nurse appeared and told me the reason they had Mabel in the low chair was so she couldn’t get up. In other words, that’s what they do what to make everyone else’s life easier.
Mabel held my gaze. She again asked me to promise to visit her. This was a moment of impact - you know those moments that stay with you, always.
I took the opportunity to give her some final parting words.
“You know you can let go of this life and go. Just make sure that you look up and follow the angel that is above you,” I said.
“Thank you” she said, again in crystal clear speech.
I will visit her again. But the truth is I hope that by next time she will have passed on to freer fields in more expansive places.
The experience had a significant impact on me. In the nursing home, I clearly saw how growing old gracefully had become a lost art. All of these elderly people were brimming with baggage never resolved, their emotional bodies so overloaded that they had moved into a vacant space. The dementia that had developed was simply the result of the barrage of unresolved issues and fear, which pervaded these isolated beings and blocked them from being able to let go.
This (coupled with medication) was keeping them here on earth, way past the point where they should have moved on. And because this created a situation that “shouldn’t be”, society had no idea how to deal with things except in the easiest way possible - by managing them with control.
The art of growing old with grace and dying with dignity has largely been lost in the western world. This applies to the generation that my Mum, Mabel and my Aunt are part of. Much of this stems from the fact that in their day they lacked access to the tools to facilitate change and assist with dealing with their emotional issues and fears.
As such, you and I have a responsibility to older generations to do it in a better way. We are fortunate that in this day and age we do have the access to the tools. Let’s own our baggage, deal with it and use these tools to grow old with grace so that when the time comes, we die with dignity and move onto our next adventures without fear.
PS: An interesting footnote to this story is that fact that my Aunt, who has been vocally racist all her life, now relies totally on non-Caucasian help. Not one of her helpers has white skin. I had to quietly smile and acknowledge the wonder of the Universe - that’s karma for you.