ROCK OF AGES

I have a big birthday coming up. It’s making me look carefully at my past. Sitting here, immobile (I broke my ankle a few weeks ago) has given me time to think about the good and the bad, the stupid and the intelligent times in my life.  Now, it’s a gathering up of the wisdom – if any – and the chance to ruminate on the sort of person I have become after all these years so full of experiences that make up life.

There are certain events that have impacted on me like atom bombs going off within inches of my heart; the births of my four children.  Childbirth is such a visceral, all-encompassing event that you have little time to think about its psychological implications while it’s happening. I had two of my children when I was very young, and the circumstances of those births and the life I lived at that time, has haunted me for years.

How do we, the older generation, pass on to our children clues, sign-posts, advice about how not to make the same mistakes? We can’t. We will be rejected if we try and it was ever so. They will make their own mistakes and live or die by them. But knowing this doesn’t help any parent.

Through life, we need anchors and sometimes we pull them up too quickly, move on too fast, leaving behind a sea-bed of shifting sand. We need help and support, but often, through ridiculous pride, we don’t reach out. Getting older means that we are more likely to need to ask people who are strangers for support – that’s the way life is today. We don’t take it for granted that our children will be there for us, providing help and comfort in our old age.

Our kids don’t feel the pull of conscience, like I did. They take longer for the roles to be reversed. When my mother was my age, I could see that she would, in a few years, need me. She didn’t have to spell it out; I knew.

Today, we are compelled to stay young in mind and body, no matter what the reality of our health is.  ‘Old’ people are a burden, a drain on society. They are the people no-one wants, unless they have money and then they are fair game for any unscrupulous con man or woman. And even children can fall into that category.

Most elderly people are terrified of being a burden to anyone. Yet, we have hundreds of old people in this country living their lives in desperate loneliness. They may go for days without seeing anyone. Often they have raised children and cared for them with love, compassion and tenderness. Frequently, they have been left impoverished because the money they earned went on the enormous cost of bringing up those children.

The myth that everyone over 65 is wealthy, has seen good times, can afford a luxurious retirement while their kids cannot afford to eat, let alone buy a house, is totally untrue. Life in the UK in 2014 is tough for a great many old people. We live in a world that is geared up for the young. Old people are ridiculed and patronised a lot of the time, even if they have has successful lives and made huge contributions to their community.

Many people in their seventies who have children, never hear from them. They never phone or call. If you are this age and do not know how to use email or have access to a computer, you are making life difficult for your kids.  Children are too busy to phone, too harassed to write and somehow, it’s your fault. That’s the unspoken message. It’s so much easier – and less compassionate – to write one line in an email and convince yourself that you are keeping in touch with Mum or Dad.

The fear that grown-up children have of being suddenly asked to be responsible for their parents is real. They avoid any contact in case they are forced, against their will, to care for them; it’s a thought that horrifies them. Their lives will be ruined. They will be hindered and trapped by ageing parents they have lost all respect for.

There are, thankfully, many families who embrace grandparents, aunts and uncles and see in them that wonderful wisdom that can be passed on and cherished. It’s sad that as time goes on, these families are not highlighted enough. The norm seems to be stories about elderly people who are abused and neglected or dying alone. And does it make any impact? The more you see the same story on TV, the more desensitized you become.

Relationships with adult children can be fraught. As I once heard a wise elderly woman say: ‘You have to keep your mouth shut and your purse open!’  But there has to be a moment in everyone’s life when they accept and acknowledge that their parents are getting old. When they connect on a different level and understand that life is short and they may not be around for very long.

Of course, if the relationship has not been good in the past, it’s not going to improve just because Mum and Dad are getting doddery and forgetting things! Compassion and maturity on both sides is the glue that helps one generation understand another and can lead to happy endings for everyone.

UNDERSTANDING DISABILITY

I thought I did. How arrogant and smug was I? Now I am immobilized with a broken ankle, having to use a wheelchair and crutches, the central tenet of the word disabled is starting to dawn on me.

I thought I was empathetic, that I knew how people in wheelchairs felt, that I understood them. What was I playing at? Being in a wheelchair for just three days has been enough to jolt me into the real world and make me see just how easy it is to be sentimental and uninformed about disability, in all its forms.

Sadly, I believe we live in a ‘me’ culture. Real compassion and empathy is often lacking when it comes to those less fortunate than ourselves. That sounds a bit preachy, but now I am ‘disabled’ I can see how simple it can be to live in a precious little bubble of  your own existence and just play patronising lip-service to anyone you see as disadvantaged.  Perhaps that is a bit harsh – people do care in the UK and give generously to charities. But social media panders to that ‘me’ thing and encourages people, especially the young, to focus on a delusional competitiveness and a sense that you have to be better than everyone else, be more popular, have more friends, be thinner, be richer, have a better job, be better dressed, be wittier, be more ‘perfect’ than everyone else.

The experience of being temporarily disabled has given me a bit of a shock. I have always been very self-reliant, confident that I need no-one and can cope with whatever life throws at me. Life is having a great big laugh at me now!  Sitting on my sofa, staring at the walls or the TV or the screen of my laptop while waiting for someone else to make life work for me, is excrutiating. I realise what a bossy mare I really am and a bit of a control freak, too.

Now, as a person in a wheelchair, I feel I am invisible – well, I am as I can’t leave the house!  Someone else, my husband (fortunately he cares about me), is making decisions on my behalf. It does not feel good.  But at least I know that this is only temporary and that I will be able to walk again soon.  My sense of awe and admiration for people who live in a wheelchair every day has trebled.

Disability is perhaps something people find embarrassing? The ‘we are beautiful’ culture, where we drop a few coins in a collection box, or feel good because we watch a charity advert showing dying children in a foreign country yet exonerating ourselves from any responsibility because it’s something that happens to others, is to my mind, a little toxic. The lack of family care for our own old people in the UK is a case in point. Grown-up kids have ‘lives’. Mum and Dad can just get on with it and if they become disabled through illness or old age, then someone – some nebulous body called social services or the NHS will care for them, won’t they? Remember – ‘we have lives!’ But the elderly had lives, too and we should remember that and honour their contribution by showing care and compassion to them.

Today, as I waited for my lovely husband to wheel me to the loo, help me get dressed. bring me food and water and listen to my moans, I realised, perhaps for the very first time, that disability needs more and better understanding from each one of us. It can’t be packaged, patronised or sentimentalised. The day to day difficulties that people who have any sort of diability have to face should be a priority for any government in a civilized society.  It is the mark of the sort of people we really are; how we view the world and where we are going – what sort of future we aspire to.

PLAYING FOOTSIE!

So here I am, in a New Year with a broken ankle!

Practicing balancing and how not to eat chocolate biscuits.
Practicing balancing and how not to eat chocolate biscuits.

Taking a peaceful walk along a cliff, not noticing how muddy the grass was, singing at the blue sky and sunshine, loving life – when all of a sudden, swoosh, smack, ankle twisted under leg, intense pain, flat on my back.

Back at home, pretending it’s just a sprain, ice packs and frozen peas wrapped around the offending limb, copious amounts of Arnica smothered everywhere, twenty minutes go by and the foot begins to SWELL.

‘It’s broken!’ I yell. Husband rushes hither and thither. Neighbour turns up – thank God for neighbours who help each other – and I am unceremoniously carried down a flight of stairs to his car. We arrive at the empty Accident and Emergency department of my local hospital. Husband grabs a wheelchair. It is a delinquent object and refuses to go forward. With my weight in it, it’s even worse. The thing starts to revolve like a demented ballet dancer and I am about to be tipped out into the road – we are by now dangerously near the curb and an ambulance with lights and siren whizzes within two inches of my extended foot. Another ambulance stands behind us. The two handsome paramedics come to our aid. I could have kissed them. (I wanted to kiss them). They took over and soon I was in a cubicle with two nurses. As it’s New Year’s Eve, one eyed me suspiciously – have I been on the booze already? It’s only three in the afternoon!

I assure her I am sober and the injury was caused by an unreal assessment of the grass, the winter sunshine and my stupidity. They both smile and nod, knowingly. The foot is poked and prodded and I am wheeled away, in a more courteous wheelchair to the x-ray department. Young man – looks about 12 to me – asks me to climb onto a bed – a bit like climbing Everest in high heels with a broken foot – and a huge machine is pulled over the leg. He disappears behind a safety screen and there is a click. I am being bombarded with rays. He emerges and moves my screaming foot into another position and runs behind his glass shield. Another click; more x-rays. I am cooked.

Back I go to another cubicle and a very pretty young doctor – looks about 14 to me – shows me the picture (they develop them fast these days). There is the inside of my foot, sneering at me. ‘See, I told you I was broken, you Nutter,’ my foot squawks silently.  The doctor explains in a lilting Irish accent that I have chipped a large chunk from a large bone. How? She explains but I don’t take it in. I am mesmerised by the picture of my bones. Dem bones, dem bones ain’t gonna walk around any time soon – the song goes round in my head like a stuck jukebox.

My foot in encased in a plaster box and I am instructed on how to use a pair of crutches and told to come back next week for an appointment at the fracture clinic. I may have to have an operation to either stick the errant bone back in place or remove it altogether. Lovely!  Nurse tells me that it will take 48 hours for the plaster to set, so not to place my foot on anything hard? Er…I have to get home and there are steps? Husband and neighbour smile and help me into wheelchair.

We reach the house and it’s a bottom job up a flight of stone steps to the door. Now, have you ever bumped yourself up a set of stone steps on a freezing cold evening with just a skirt and knickers on and a plastered leg? It’s interesting. Neighbour has had enough and disappears into his house. I sit propped up beside the back door while husband opens it and stands staring at me, trying not to laugh. Bottom, as well as foot, is numb…

I manage to crawl on all fours into the kitchen and pull myself up by clutching a chair that want to skate across the floor and kill me! Husband hands me the crutches. Here we go. Crutches were not designed for people like me; they were designed for ATHLETES! Preferably athletes who have won an olympic medal in weight-lifting – YOU HAVE TO SUPPORT THE WEIGHT OF YOUR BODY AND HOP! Husband dissolves into tears of laughter.

The night passes with my foot perched on top of five pillows, like the princess and the pea story, only there was no pea apart from the ones I kept wanting to do throughout the night. Using crutches to get to the loo at three in the morning when you have never used them before is like jumping off a tall building in the hope that you will fly. It’s impossible. I seem to weigh about 20 tons. My plastered foot weighs another 10. As I balance precariously on one leg, waiting for it to give way so that I fall into a crumpled pile of bones held together by exhausted unmoisturised skin, my husband crawls out of bed, groaning.

‘Not again,’ he said, ‘what the hell did you drink last night?’

An articulated human skeleton, as used in biol...
An articulated human skeleton, as used in biology education (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As it was New Year’s Eve and all I’d had was WATER, I could have hit him with my crutches.

In the morning, a new day makes everything feels better. The British Red Cross, bless them, are going to find me a temporary wheelchair, my friends and family phone and hurled oodles of empathy at me and even the crutches behave themselves. My torso and arms are bearing my weight better and the leg isn’t hurting so much. I’m over the first hurdle, metaphorically speaking. Next week I will know if I am going under the knife. For the moment though, I am okay and really thankful for the kindness of strangers, the amazing NHS, friends, neighbours, family and the lovely Red Cross. Thank you all.