Opinion

My mother died in lockdown: here's the crucial lesson

All of life is a 'lockdown' for the elderly banished to old-age homes, writes Mark Barnes

26 April 2020 - 00:10 By Mark Barnes
'We don't 'use' our elderly enough. We don't ask. We don't listen.'
'We don't 'use' our elderly enough. We don't ask. We don't listen.'
Image: 123RF/belchonock

My mother died of natural causes during lockdown. In the end, although I wasn't allowed to be there, even in the hospital, her passing was thankfully quicker than it might have been. She left before the pipes and machines could take over - good for her! My Mom, the woman who spent a full life trying to give me a life, was already long gone.

For the most part it seems we have scant regard for the lives of the elderly. There is a big difference between being kept alive and living. It is true that old people are living too long, but it's not their fault.

The economics of longevity has two sides to it. It costs us a fortune to keep people alive beyond their own planning for financial independence in retirement. "Three score years and ten" is a long-outdated tally for a full life. We haven't changed retirement ages, or other norms, to keep up. Let alone coping with the continued supply of bright young minds, ready and able to clear out their forbears in their relentless pursuit of the corner office - finding young CEOs (in their 40s) has proven to be a winning strategy - but there is a cost.

What costs us a fortune personally is the foundation for vast pharmaceutical empires, making money from extending life. A lose-win game, isn't it?

It's not about the economics. It's about the quality of sustained life. At some point it requires professional help to sustain these medication-assisted-perpetual-living beings. Our parents. Once they move (or get moved) into an old-age home, their lives start shrinking dramatically, as they do. From then on they are sentenced to a life of being surrounded by old people (the very reason we edged them out in the first place?).

As time passes we go and see them less often. Not because we don't care or don't want to but because it becomes more and more difficult to engage in a conversation about worlds that are drifting apart - rapidly.

I'd rather die early than be bossed around and bullied by people who 'know what's good for you'

We should take them out with us rather than go into their confined, lockdown-ruled existence of puréed food and fixed meal times. By the time you read this I hope we only have a few more full days of "stay well, stay at home". Lockdown becomes a normal life for the aged, banished to old-age homes, no matter how "upmarket".

I'd rather wander about freely in an old shanty town somewhere than be cooped up in a five-star hotel, wouldn't you? I'd rather die early than be bossed around and bullied by people who "know what's good for you".

Our parents' living environments become smaller and more restricted as they become less independently mobile. Even their living spaces become less alive as they clutter up with inanimate reminders of a life once lived. Outdated, albeit valuable, crystal glasses and bone-handle cutlery, handwritten, flour-stained recipe books and fading paper photographs will be found in antique wooden cabinets with glass doors - on display, not in use - like their owners. We need to be in use. We need to be useful. Purpose is oxygen.

We don't "use" our elderly enough. We don't ask. We don't listen. When we were kids they told us to listen. We had to, and we learned. Now it is us who do the talking, they who are required to listen. Really? Give them half a chance to share their stories and I think we'll find we still have more to learn than teach. Experience doesn't come out of an iPad.

Our ageing parents belong on the asset side of our balance sheets and yet so often we see them as an obligation. Invite them into your active life. So what if they burn out a little earlier?

After the old-age home, however comfortable, comes frail care. A place of painful perpetuity, the last waiting room. Nobody ever goes home from there. Who wants to be there? Who puts us there? Surely it's a stage we'd avoid, given half a say in the matter?

The truth is that caring for but not caring about the aged is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. So, perhaps it is about the economics, after all. At a personal level, it doesn't have to be. So what if they don't remember everything? So what if she suggests to you that you should tell you to come and visit when it is you who is visiting.

Who needs to remember everything, anyway? Who needs to stay alive under duress?

Ask their opinion. You're not bothering them by breaking into the capsule that has become their life. It won't bother them to be invited back into your busy life - they've been on lockdown for years, some of them, and they're never coming out.

Stop all the hopeless chronic economic medication, you'll wonder why you didn't do it earlier. Have some fun, throw caution to the wind. Expose our elders to more life and less protection. Why else would you want them to stick around?