Archives for category: Ageing

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As I sort and pack books, I cannot help but leaf through many, mainly to remind myself what they were all about (sometimes I think that I have read too many books, and as a result do not always remember the content). Just now, I came across Immortality, published in 1992. On the opening page, we are introduced to a woman – who ‘might have been sixty or sixty-five’ – being observed having a swimming lesson by the writer/the ‘I’ of the narrative. He focuses on a gesture she makes at the end of the lesson – smiling and waving to the lifeguard as she leaves. The narrator is moved by the gesture:

“That smile and that gesture had charm and elegance, while the face and the body no longer had any charm. It was the charm of a gesture drowning in the charmlessness of the body. But the woman, though she must of course have realized that she was no longer beautiful, forgot that for the moment.”

He continues:

“There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless.”

This passage affirms my theory that we read to find and recognise ourselves. I, of course, am that woman, momentarily escaping the constraints of biological age. I like what Kundera says about existing outside of time, and being ageless, although I suspect that society – which includes ourselves – enforces a pretty constant reality check on how we are perceived by others. Thus, being ageless is a rare luxury.

But I also find myself a little angry with Kundera when he appears to pass judgment on the charmlessness of the woman’s face and body because of age, which has also denied her her beauty. Being middle-aged myself, I no doubt take a sensitive and defensive stance on such attitudes.

Perhaps I should suspend my own judgement until I finish re-reading the book.

 

CQ

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Following on from my last blog piece on ageing, I came across an interesting book review in this week’s issue of the Lancet. Desmond O’Neill speaks about Four Last Songs: Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten by Linda and Michael Hutcheon.

The book I will check out for sure, but for now I particularly like Desmond O’Neill’s positive take on ageing:

“By reframing old age in terms of potential rather than problems, it counters those who portray ageing in terms of unmanageable deficit and loss. Creativity also illuminates the complex interplay of growth, loss, and transcendence in later life.”

 

CQ

 

I welcome the recent increase in the number of films where older people, particularly the ‘older than old’, have taken centre stage. I missed Advanced Style, the documentary film that followed elderly (over 60, some in their 80s and 90s) stylish women in New York. The film was well received, and a Guardian review shared some insights into the positive effects that can accompany ageing:

“Ageing has, for these women, brought with it a kind of liberation. “We all want some kind of approval,” says Lynn Dell Cohen, “but I think you have to like yourself first.”

“I am not afraid,” says Carpati warmly. “That’s what age can do for you. It gives you a freedom! I don’t care. I must sound outrageous to you, do I?” she says. “I’m free.””

I did see Iris, also a documentary centred on the fashion world. Iris Apfel is a 93 year old New Yorker, and the film follows the ‘geriatric starlet‘ as she continues her life as a prominent fashionista today. The film was directed by Albert Maysles, himself 88 at the time, which perhaps partly explains its upbeatness as it delivers the message that old age can indeed bring fun, laughter and fulfilment. Iris herself contributes in no small way to this. She exudes vitality – even as her body fails her a little – and continues to love living. I suspect that she ages as she has lived, embracing life.

More recently, I saw Ping Pong at the Royal Society of Medicine Global Health Film Festival. Filmed pre and post the 2010 Veterans Ping Pong World Championships hosted by China, this documentary follows seven participants, variously aged between 82 and 100. Some have played ping pong for most of their lives, for others it has been a hobby discovered in old age. For all, it is a hugely immersive, enjoyable, and sustaining part of their lives. During the competition, there are inevitably winners and losers, participants who are much more competitive than others and a modicum of aggression, a human attribute that transcends age, but in the end, all ultimately pulled together with grace and with their shared love of the sport. It is of course significant that the seven characters are ‘older than old’. One cannot but marvel at the ingenuity of their strokes, skill that seems to defy physical frailty, and even more so their sense of humour. We are invited to laugh, not at them, but with them. This is a film about old age, and to a certain extent inevitably also about mortality, but more so, it is a celebration of living while alive.

Last weekend, during the London Irish Film Festival, I saw Older than Ireland, a documentary film featuring Ireland’s centenarians. There are approximately 300 people in Ireland over 100 years of age. The film interviewed 30 of these. It is a gem. Largely driven by the interviewees themselves, the film is funny, moving, poignant, and real. The director Alex Fagan (who created the wonderful The Irish Pub a couple of years ago) joined for Q and A after the screening. Much of the film is hilarious, mainly as the centenarians speak so disarmingly freely and directly. They invite us to laugh as they share anecdotes and stories. This is a feel good movie, yet there is also a palpable sadness at times, and Fagan commented that most of the participants mentioned the loneliness of old age.

I have written previously here about The Lady in Number 6, another inspirational film that featured Alice Hertz Sommer at 109, a pianist and the oldest Holocaust survivor. I have also spoken about the loneliness of old age, exemplified by Timothy O’Grady’s I Could Read The Sky (both a book and a film), and Michael Haneke’s Amour, which celebrates the transcendence of love.

There are of course many more.

As life expectancy continues to increase generation on generation – by 2030 it is estimated that there will be four million people over 80 in the UK – it is good to see representation of this fact within the arts, particularly as the ‘older than old’ population is a relatively recent phenomenon and one with which we have little insight and experience to date. The arts are perfectly positioned for helping us understand and appreciate this experience, thus serving to pave the way for a welcoming of the elderly towards the centre rather than the periphery of our lives.

 

 

 

This Spanish film is based on a graphic novel by Paco Roba, and explores issues around ageing and its indignities, care homes, and dementia.

It is a gem. Utterly believable and sad, as getting old and dependent can be, particularly when afflicted by Alzheimer’s Disease, Wrinkles is also funny, redemptive and hopeful. It restores faith in the human condition, and in humanness…

 

CQ

Jon Sanders follow up to the earlier Late September is also a quintessentially British and theatrical piece. Set in Kent, Back to the Garden features the reunion of actor friends one year on from the death of one of the group. His widow remains stuck in her grief, and the film delves into and around issues of loss, of the meaning of mortality, and how terrifying the finality of death can be.

For the grieving widow, she now realises how totally bound up in her marriage, and in their love, her own identity had been. Following her husband’s death, it is as if she has not only lost him, but has also lost her self.

Her friends gently probe and question her feelings and her experience of grief.

‘Are you still in love with a dead person?’, one asks. An intriguing question, and one that proved hard to definitively answer, despite the fact that love was clearly consistently central to their relationship.

‘Does time heal?’, asks another. No, but taking one day at a time helps.

‘Is death the annihilation of self?’ ‘Do we just, stop?’ Also unanswerable and unknowable, but the discussions around these and other questions were illuminating.

Similar to his earlier work, Sanders encouraged improvisation in this recent release. This approach heightens the natural feel to the film, and its authenticity, and serves to make the experience of watching and listening to Back to the Garden real, thought provoking, and lingering.

 

 

The fact of dementia is inescapable, as its incidence threatens to reach epidemic proportions in the not too distant future.

Thus, unsurprisingly, dementia as a theme is increasingly prevalent in the arts, including literature, theatre and the visual arts. I discussed the artist William Utermohlen in a previous post, and the impact of dementia on his life and creativity (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/art-and-alzheimers/). I have also experienced wonderful theatre that has focused on the subject, such as Tamsin Oglesby’s Really Old, Like Forty Five (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/dementia1/), and Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/dementia-autobiographer/).

A few years ago I came across a short story by Alice Munro, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1999 (http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2013/10/21/131021fi_fiction_munro). The story was later adapted for the film Away from Her (2006), which was directed by Sarah Polley.

The short story concerns Grant and Fiona, who have been married for many years, and do not have any children. When Fiona was 70, Grant started to notice little yellow notes stuck all over the house. The notes were detailed and included prompts on where to locate household items as well as aids for remembering what her daily schedule should be. Fiona then started to call Grant from town when she could not remember how to get home. Fiona herself comments:

“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” she said. “I expect I’m just losing my mind.”

The forgetfulness and memory loss get worse. Eventually, the time arrives for Fiona to move to institutional care at Meadowlake, where she creates her own and not unhappy life, separate and detached from Grant. The story is a profoundly moving and sad portrayal of love and of loss.

Today I read a more recent short story by Munro from her collection Dear Life. In In Sight of the Lake (reminiscent of Meadowlake in the earlier story), Nancy’s story slowly unfollows as one also of dementia, or of a ‘mind problem’ as she herself sees it, although then correcting herself: “It isn’t mind. It’s just memory.”

In Sight of the Lake is a more obtuse and enigmatic piece than The Bear Came Over the Mountain, and it only really reveals itself at its denouement. Nonetheless, it is every bit as moving and as touching as its thematic predecessor, and leaves much to consider about the far-reaching and tragic impact of dementia, a condition that perhaps few of us may ultimately escape.

CQ

A first experience for me, this festival, seemingly the largest european film festival, is on at various venues in London until November 17.

Thus far I have seen two great films.

Firstly, The Lady in Number 6, which introduces us to Alice Herz Sommer, who, at almost 110, is the world’s oldest pianist and holocaust survivor. She is truly inspirational. Charismatic and engaging, her optimism and enjoyment of life is uplifting. She is grateful for her life, all of it, the good and the bad, and for every day that she continues to experience. At 109, she enjoys life and people hugely, and continues to devote time and self to her greatest passion, playing the piano:

‘Music saved my life and music saves me still.’

As one of the co-producers Chris Branch stated when he introduced The Lady in Number 6, this is not a film about the holocaust, but about one remarkable person.

Secondly, Orchestra of Exiles, which was preceded by 15 minutes of wonderful live music (violin, including the very moving title track to Schindler’s List). Again, this film was much more about the good achieved by one person rather than a documentary about the holocaust. The Polish violinist Bronislow Hubermann rescued many of the world’s greatest musicians from Nazi Germany and eastern europe in the mid 1930s, facilitating their exit to Palestine, which led to the creation of the now world-famous Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Two things struck me while watching both films: the extraordinary goodness and kindness that exists in humanity and which can sometimes be easy to forget, and the power of music to enrich and to transform both the lives of individuals and of nations.

CQ

I just came across this poem in the current issue of The New Yorker, and just love it. It is so eloquently sad and moving.

from Leçons De Ténèbres:

‘But are they lessons, all these things I learn

Through being so far gone in my decline?’

‘…I should have been more kind. It is my fate

To find this out, but find it out too late.’

‘… But now I have slowed down. I breathe the air

As if there were not much more of it there

And write these poems, which are funeral songs

That have been taught to me by vanished time:

Not only to enumerate my wrongs

But to pay homage to the late sublime

That comes with seeing how the years have brought

A fitting end, if not the one I sought.’

Clive James

I Could Read The Sky, written by Timothy O’Grady with photographs by Steve Pyke, first appeared in 1997.

The photographic novel was later adapted by Nichola Bruce to create a film of the same name (1999). I recently received a gift of Iarla O’Lionaird’s haunting accompanying soundtrack, which also features Sinead O’Connor, Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Noel Hill and Liam O’Maonlai. The music inspired me to re-explore both the book and the film.

A deeply melancholic and tragic narrative, I Could Read The Sky has loss, poverty, isolation and loneliness at its core.

It tells the story of one man, as he looks back on his life from solitary old age in Kentish Town. We get flashbacks of growing up in Ireland and of his life after leaving his native land to find work in England. The book unfolds as memories, as a looking back, to what has constituted a life.

The tone of the book is set at the outset, with a poem by Peter Woods on exile:

‘Exile is not a word

It is a sound

The rending of skin

A fistful of clay on top

of a coffin.’

We first see the lone figure in a Kentish Town bedsit:

‘This is me. I have a round bald head. My eyes are blue and watery and my fingers are stained with tobacco. I am alone here with a black dog. I sleep badly.’

His life in England has variously included working in a beet factory in Ipswich, slab laying in Bedford, and working with drainage pipes in Coventry, before settling in London amongst his compatriots:

‘There are men on the Kilburn High Road you can only see unfinished buildings in their eyes.’

He shares his flashbacks and memories, ‘sounds and pictures but they flit and crash before I can get them’, images of long-left Ireland and Labasheeda (‘The day of the Stations is a big day’) interspersed with the reality of his today:

‘I open my eyes in Kentish Town. Always this neutral air.’

‘A chair beside the bed. Tablets. A shirt with little blue squares, the collar shot. A bottle of Guinness here and another on the ledge. Maggie’s rosary, crystal beads.’

‘A wardrobe made my people I’ve never met.’

We return again and again to the Kentish Town bedsit:

‘I roll onto my side. The wardrobe door is open, Maggie’s dress with the bluebell’s hanging there.’

Maggie was the love of his life, and her death its greatest tragedy. The story of how they met, and what she meant to him, is a most beautiful and moving thread that weaves through the narrative.

‘I’ll not be leaving Kentish Town now except in a brown box and when I do I’ll be going to Labasheeda to lie with Maggie. I’ve left the instructions.’

His grief is almost tangible:

‘What is it to miss someone? It is not the throbbing ache of a wound. It is not the pain you get under your ribs from running. It is not a befouled feeling, the feeling of being in mud. It is the feeling of being in a strange place and losing direction. It is the feeling of looking without seeing and eating without tasting. It is forgetfulness, the inability to move, the inability to connect. It is a sentence you must serve and if the person you miss is dead your sentence is long.’

As fragments of his past and present life come and go, he pieces together a list of sorts:

‘What I could do.

I could mend nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs…I could dance sets. Read the sky…Make a field…I could read the sea…Shear sheep. Remember poems. Set potatoes…Read the wind…Make a coffin. Take a drink. I could frighten you with stories.’

‘What I couldn’t do.

Eat a meal lacking potatoes. Trust banks. Wear a watch…Drink coffee…Follow cricket. Understand the speech of a man from west Kerry…Speak with men wearing collars. Stay afloat in water. Understand their jokes. Face the dentist. Kill a Sunday. Stop remembering.’

It makes you think about what we are, what constitutes our lives, lists of dos and don’ts, the memories we hang onto and those we forget, the people of our lives…

Watching the film again after re-reading the book, I love the collage of images, music and voices that interplay on the screen. How fragmented and bitty our lives in reality are, and the challenge is to try and pull it all together and somehow create a meaningful whole…

‘I remember loneliness and the walls of Quex Road. I remember pure sadness.’

CQ

This debut novel by the Norwegian author Kjersti A. Skomsvold was my second read on the IMPAC Dublin literary award shortlist.

An intriguing and intense book, I liked it when I read it, and it has lingered much in my thoughts ever since.

The central character is Mathea Martinsen, an elderly widow who lives alone, leading a solitary and almost agoraphobic life, “I Mathea am alone”. The details of her life are subtlely revealed, interspersed with Mathea’s own musings:

‘I never got the point of flowers, they’re just going to wither and die.’

‘I like it when I can be done with something. Like a knitted earwarmer, like winter, spring, summer, fall.’

We know that Mathea has been married to Epsilon, and that they did not have children, a loss that is not dwelt on but more obliquely alluded to:

‘I identify with bananas, for not only am I hunched over, I’ve also got a flower without sex organs and fruit without seed, and therefore I am, according to the Buddha, meaningless.’

Now widowed, childless and alone, Mathea spends much time considering her own approaching death:

‘It may take a long time before anyone realizes I’ve died.’

However, her thoughts are neither maudlin nor self-pitying as she considers, in a sometimes peculiarly detached way, her last moments:

‘It’s getting dark, I’m trying to concentrate on something useful, and the only thing that matters now is to figure out what my last words will be.’

Obituaries preoccupy, and distract:

‘LIVE LIFE. Seize the day. I’m standing next to my bed, but I don’t know how to seize my day. Finally, I decide to do what I always do: read the obituaries.’

Yet she is also philosophical, and knowing, about her own life and its inherent solitude:

‘”MATHEA MARTINSEN – deeply loved, dearly missed,” I write at the top of the page and underline it.’

‘Today I’m glad my name isn’t there. Still, an obituary would be proof of my existence…’

‘I used to read obituaries to gloat over all the people I’d outlived, but now I don’t think it matters, we all live for just a moment anyway.’

She is not afraid to consider death, and does so with much pragmatism and wry humour:

‘I need to expose myself more and more to death – without going too far, it’s a delicate balance – but then at last I’ll be able to live with the fact that I’m going to die. I figure this can be done in two ways and so I draw up a list.

1. I can visit graveyards, go to funerals, or I can plan my own funeral…

…It must be terrible to plan your own funeral. It’s probably easier to plan other people’s.

2. I can begin living dangerously. I can cross the street without first looking left, then right, then left again.’

But part of her obsession with dying also connects to her struggle with living, and her solitary existence:

‘I’m still sitting here in my apartment and I’m just as afraid of living life as I am of dying.’

Mathea appears profoundly lonely, despite her fear of others, a loneliness that she has experienced all her life:

‘Now I hear ambulance sirens in the distance again, they should be coming to get me because I’m wearing clean underwear and will be dying soon. But no, there’s someone else in the ambulance instead…’

The tragic irony is that she does want to connect with others, but does not know how:

‘I usually buy what other people buy, it’s nice to have boiled cod for dinner if the woman in front of me at the checkout is also having boiled cod.’

‘I let myself imagine that someone might notice me on the way to the store. But what would I do if that happened, probably nothing, and whoever it is might be disappointed by what they see. I’ve never heard of anyone being impressed by nothing at all, and I don’t like to disappoint people.’

‘You’re only fooling yourself if you think you can’t be lonely just because you’re busy, but the most important thing is that no one else thinks you’re lonely.’

Ultimately defeated, Mathea arrives at her own denouement:

‘I’m not afraid of dying anymore, I’m just afraid of dying alone, and I’ve already done that.’

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am addresses very significant themes, around what it means to be human and to have lived, such as solitude, loneliness, the inevitability of death, the need to belong, to be visible and noticed, and to matter.

Big stuff, which lingers and makes you think…

CQ