Some years back my wife’s mum, Kath, started showing early signs of dementia and we decided to have her come and live with us because we didn’t like the idea of her going into a home. There were some good moments but mostly it was hell. Hopefully she took some comfort from being with people who loved her.
Some plants, nearing the end of their life, will flower. They know that they’re going to die and they’re just putting all their remaining strength into keeping their line going. As far as I can tell there’s no sadness or distress involved, they’re just getting on and dealing with the situation, doing what needs to be done.
Our whole life is a preparation for what’s coming up next. Or rather, our best guess at what’s coming up next. My best guess is that I’ll become less and less capable of doing things that I’m used to doing. So I should prepare for that. There’s no useful role for wishful thinking on this. It’s going to happen. Of course I’ll do what I can to mitigate things. I can stay active, physically and mentally. I can pay attention to my health and lifestyle. I can plan my physical environment. I can downsize the house. I can try to have enough money saved up to pay others to do things I’m used to doing myself.
But Kath had all her physical needs taken care of. She was warm, well-fed, dressed, washed and generally well looked after. She was with people who loved and understood her. Yet she was in distress most of the time. I’ll never be dismissive of how genuine that emotional pain was, or the misery suffered by people with mental illness. But HERE’S THE THING: how much of that distress might be avoided by preparation for the inevitable? All her long life, Kath had been fiercely independent and self-sufficient. She only survived because of her iron will and determination. How much did this legacy impact on her mental and emotional state as she deteriorated towards incapacity and dependence on others?
Most of us, when we’re young, learn to control our emotions in order to function properly as adults. I don’t like trailing around Tesco’s for the weekly shopping. I grit my teeth, get round and get out. What I don’t do (at least, not to date), is suddenly start writhing around on the floor kicking and screaming. Those screaming, out-of-control kids at the supermarket seem to me to be every bit as distressed as Kath was when she couldn’t dress herself or remember where her handbag was.
Yet somehow the child can, in time, adapt to the reality of their situation. Loving parental guidance may help, but the fact is most kids pretty much figure it out on their own. We say they grow out of it. They learn that there are many things around them that they have no control over. They deal with this by adapting the one thing they can have control over, namely, themselves. They come to realise that ranting and raving doesn’t help, it just makes them miserable.
Then comes adulthood. As an adult I’ve got a bit more control over the things around me. But I can easily forget that, at any time, reality could take an unexpected turn and I’d lose that power and control. So, approaching my declining years, I have this illusion of power and control. And a large helping of personal pride. Plus quite a lot of self-consciousness. Add an expectation of comfort and privacy. And finally, a pile of narrow-mindedness and intolerance. That’s the legacy I bring to now, to the point at which I’m going to become increasingly incapable and dependent on others.
I’ve learnt that we can’t often do very much about the world around us, and never with any certainty. This impotence also applies to our physical bodies, our health and longevity. But inside our minds, that’s our own thing, that’s where we can have some real control, where there’s real scope for change.
There are some serious adjustments to be made if I want any kind of contentment in the future. I’m starting now. I’m not on my own. Carl Jung had a handle on all this, talking about the “afternoon of life”. Rather him than Dylan Thomas raging against the dying of the light.
It’s a big ask. But I’ve already sort of done it before, when I was growing up. Now I want to grow down.