Thursday, 30 September 2010

The sadness of old age

This week, I visited my uncle in the nursing home where he is now a resident. It's a nice enough place, the staff are kind, and the care perfectly adequate. But I find these visits hugely sad. My uncle - David - is 93 (he keeps telling me he's 100, and that's probably the way he feels), and terribly confused. I have no idea what goes on in his head, but he seems to drift from one world to another, as though through a series of diconnected dreams. Some of these are sad, some not so bad. Sometimes he's chairing a committee (he's chaired a lot of committees in his time), or staying in a hotel, and at others he seems lost, and begs to be taken home.

He knows that he knows me, and enjoys a big hug (perhaps the only language he can now fully understand), but not always who I am. Thus, sometimes I'm my mother (his sister), older than he but long-dead, and he reminisces about how I used to take him on outings from his boarding school. At other times, I'm myself, or someone completly different. His hearing is all but gone, making his world even lonelier than it would otherwise be.

This is a common situation. There are thousands of elderly confused people, living out their last days in institutions. I have nursed some of them. But I find it quite heartbreaking, watching this vital, energetic, highly successful man reduced to confusion and incontinenece and (often) sheer bewilderment. Twice,he has nearly died, only to be rescued by antibiotics. Pneumonia used to be called "the old man's friend", and with good reason, but not any more. We may have defeated pneumonia (often), but not the wretched half-life that so many of its survivors lead towards the end of their lives.

So I shall continue to visit David; to write him messages in thick marker pen in the hope of getting some kind of message through to him, and to give him hugs. And to hope that his ordeal will come to a peaceful end sooner rather than later.


  1. And yet you think your writing makes you selfish...

    Once again impressed by how active your caring is, Frances. :)

  2. I don't think I'm nearly as nice as you imagine, Nevets! But thanks, anyway.

  3. At least there is still someone who cares about him, Frances. I'm sure a lot of the other old folk aren't so lucky.

  4. The Royal Liverpool let pneumonia carry my dad off. At the time, I was very angry, but looking back, I think they did the right thing, as he had lung cancer. It's very sad. An elderly friend of mine, 82, is at her wits' end trying to cope with her husband who has dementia and can no longer talk. I feel sure your uncle can pick up your caring, interested vibes. Great that you still visit him.

  5. So sad Frances. Poor man. Old age is so much crueller than it needs to be. But lovely he has someone who cares.

  6. Thanks for your comments, everyone. Hydra - I had to make that decision (not to treat pneumonia) for both my parents, and have never regretted it. Nowadays, things aren't so straightforward, what with risks of litigation etc. My uncle does have an adoring housekeeper, who visits him several times a week, so that's good (although she and I don't agree about treatment/resuscitation issues, which can be tricky).

    I think the saddest thing for him is that he has no children of his own. His only son died soon after birth. (Gosh - this has been a miserable post. Sorry, folks!)