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Relationships - July 2017

Extreme old age


Maggi Stamp is a highly qualified relationship counsellor and trainer who writes each month about emotional and practical concerns and challenges that many of us meet in later life. For 20 years, as well as running a private practise, Maggi worked with the organisation Relate to help married and single people, cohabiting couples, same sex couples, families, young and old people and the bereaved to develop, foster and enjoy healthy and fulfilling relationships. No less important, as she is herself a wife, mother and grandmother, she brings a lifetime of varied and eventful experience to enhance her empathy and understanding.  

Many of her examples are based on concerns that clients, family and friends have presented over the years. In the monthly articles where she responds to issues raised by readers, she strictly respects confidentiality and never identifies those who write to her. But the individual worries they raise are invariably felt by others, so her responses can help many.

You can write to Maggi at maggi@laterlife.com 
for her to respond in the column.



Extreme old age

Dear Maggi,
I am getting so despondent about my widowed Mum. She is 90 now and still in her own home where she's lived since I was in my twenties.
Mum has a carer going in each days to help her get up, dressed and breakfasted and her lunch is delivered later on.

As I'm retired I go in to give her tea and help her get back to bed. She has radio and TV in the sitting room and the bedroom and has one of them on all day. Most of her friends have already died and she looks upon elderly people of my age as youngsters, so she is very lonely. Her grandchildren and great grandchildren call on her now and then and she is always pleased to see them but they find it hard to think of things to say to her and of course she is likely to doze off at any time, which leaves them feeling uncomfortable.

Mum is physically deteriorating but mentally she is fairly aware still. This is cruel really as she can't do the things her mind feels capable of because her body is so frail. Her eyesight is very bad so reading a book, even in large print, is very tiring, though she can see the TV - in a fuzzy way. Her hearing is not good but finds hearing aids far too fiddly for her shaky and arthritic fingers to service when a battery needs replacing or they need a clean.

Her beloved garden is impossible for her to tend, as is any kind of housework. She can shuffle to the kitchen to make a cup of tea or coffee but I would rather leave her a flask on the table near her chair so she doesn't need to handle a boiling kettle. The effort exhausts her and I worry about the dangers of a fall.

She complains not just of her joints aching but skin hurting and itching, she is often incontinent and she has recently lost a lot of her teeth, which just came loose.

As you see she is very isolated and not surprisingly she frequently says she has had enough. She wants to die as she feels life is not worth living, it is just too hard. She used to be a regular church goer but now says she has no faith.

How can I continue reassuring her when I can’t understand how she feels? I hate the thought of losing her but would want the same if it were me.

Thank you for drawing our attention to this sad situation. This is an increasing problem for many of our very elderly. In Europe and most of the developed world life expectancy has risen dramatically and this is one of the unforeseen results. Many people are living well beyond their own expectations, feeling like sole survivors of the past, bodies ticking on in spite of the gradual decay, but minds still active and able. In this opposite of the 'dementia ending' in life, people are mentally well but physically broken. They feel trapped within an increasingly useless and uncomfortable body.

One of the difficulties of the very old feeling this way is that it is hard to comfort them. Their understandable depression cannot be beaten 'in a year or two'. They know this. As one person of 94 put it to my husband, "Its a slow way of dying." Sitting and waiting is all they can do. They are tired. Tired of struggling to wake up, get up, wash, feed, dress, undress, remember to take their medication, trying to sleep at night, trying not to sleep during the day. Talking and listening to others can tire them, but sitting alone and in silence is no comforting alternative.

It is not unusual for someone in this situation to mention their wish that someone could help them end their life. In a few countries this is an accepted concept; while strictly monitored and with the need for strong justification, it can happen. The UK and plenty of other countries are not ready to embrace this move even though a debate about 'Assisted dying" is called for occasionally in Parliament, triggered no doubt by individual pleas. But the very elderly do talk of it, so their carers need to be prepared to listen and not ignore or attempt to dismiss their very legitimate views. It is they who suffer the pains and indignities and they long for it to end. Carers and family can only agree that it must feel intolerable and awful for them.

This is so painful for their families. Very few people could see their way to assist in their (probably) parent's wishes and are dreading the day when that person's life does end. Yet they feel helpless to ease the loved one's suffering. It has passed beyond everyone's control.

What is there that a carer can do in such a situation?

As with any person in pain, once all the usual channels of medication and physical comfort have been attended to, a carer knows there is nothing more they can practically do.

The best help is company and distraction. Listen to their reminiscences even if you have heard them plenty of times before. These old people are facing their closing days, their memories are their life, and there is very little future for them, although this was once described to me as "My last adventure" by an elderly housebound man. Listen too to the, probably repetitious, worries and complaints as compassionately and calmly as you can, but try to bring a little of the outside world to them. Bring it in short helpings so as not to increase their tiredness, but bring it often so that they look forward to hearing more about a child, grandchild or great grandchild's adventures, they hear about your struggle with your garden, wallpapering the hall, or your neighbour's cat - or anything that is within their former world that has relevance to them. Allow them to advise or somehow connect with what is happening so that they are lifted out of their inevitable preoccupations for a short while. Thank them, so letting them know they are still of use. If they, or you have a calm and gentle cat or dog, involve the animal, so long as there is no fear of them, or a respiratory condition that could be exacerbated. Pets have a soothing effect on lonely people.

In many areas there are voluntary organisations that bring together someone willing to give up an hour or so each week and an elderly person.

If you are able to offer such a comfort to someone near you, ask at your local surgery or church, or look on your County or District Council's website. It might mean seeing someone for a chat who lives near you, or in the next street or village. Just giving someone housebound and lonely an hour of your time, let alone bringing the odd treat (my husband takes a packet of favourite sweets to his elderly lady each week, which she devours rapidly!), sweets, chocolate, a small cake or biscuits, will brighten their day and distract from their discomforts for a while.

It sounds like a small and simple thing, but it is an event that is eagerly looked forward to - and is a lifeline.



You can write to Maggi at maggi@laterlife.com for her to respond in the column.


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