“I am a retired teacher and widow of 79 years and I live in a flat within a sheltered residential complex as my health is beginning to fail. It is comfortable but I do not find the company congenial. I have two married daughters, one who lives abroad and one who lives a two-hour journey away. All the conversation here, especially amongst the women, revolves around comparing their children and grand-children over such things as visits. It never used to have any impact on me but just now it has made me feel more and more depressed.”
Approaching a new decade is often a charged experience. After the mid-life point, each new decade underlines the reality of mortality. Despite the increase in life expectancy, coming to the eighth decade means getting closer to the reality of your own death and often, as has happened with Mrs U, the death of a partner, friend or relative.
Mrs U’s description of herself as a retired teacher and a widow conveys two different losses. As well as the loss of a partner there is the loss of professional life after retirement. Although research shows that people in thinking professions (such as philosophers, psychoanalysts and writers) live longer, this might have less to do with their habit of exercising the brain. It might be more linked to the fact that such individuals can work past retirement age and not face that loss because their particular skills carry no enforced retirement age.
For some, creative new work can co-exist with and enrich the negotiations with mortality. Dr. John Bowlby, for example, was able to complete a major biography of Charles Darwin in his last two years of life at the same time as turning down future lecture requests on the grounds that “I might not be alive when the time comes”. John Gielgud at 88 has just achieved a lifetime’s aim of taking the part of Prospero whilst realistically worrying if he would be alive to see the film appear. However, if you cannot use your professional skills after retirement and your peer group do not value your past professional experience there are extra difficulties.
Had her husband been alive Mrs U might not have felt so vulnerable to the comments of her neighbours. Facing a new late decade alone and facing the prospect of death alone is quite a major task. A younger adult who does not like her neighbours or work colleagues is able to move away to a more congenial place. However, when you are elderly and becoming more frail, you are not free to move in the same autonomous way and paying to be in a physically comfortable and secure environment does not ensure congenial company. Depending on the level of her frailty Mrs U might like to join the University of the Third Age or attend a local day class to find alternative companions.
Sometimes creativity can be expressed through the experiences of children, grand-children or younger friends. However, the kind of envious competing that Mrs U describes is not creative. It may be that her neighbours are feeling as depressed as she is. Feelings of emptiness and unwantedness can be put at bay by passing stern judgements on absent children. Fear of the emotional reversal of needing your children physically present to parent you can also be hidden by this kind of conversation.
For whilst the “young” elderly might enjoy the distant exploits of their adult children the “old” old are more likely to be in touch with a sense of physical frailty and show greater dependency needs. The late psychoanalyst Peter Hildebrand pointed out that the “young old” can find pleasure in exploring areas that had to be suppressed in the interests of carrying out careers and parental roles whilst the very old have to face dependency issues and more infantile needs.
Mrs U is suffering. What can she do? Professor Hildebrand considered that if there is a solution it is more likely to be through self-help groups rather than expecting children to provide the sort of care people need. However, has Mrs U told her daughters and sons-in-law that she is feeling depressed? Fear of showing need could deprive Mrs U of extra contact. It may be that even if they were told Mrs U’s daughters might not be able to offer more than they do. However, without testing that Mrs U will not know.
If Mrs U stays depressed Professor Hildebrand sees psychotherapy as an aid to dealing with the lessening of power and control. Professor Hildebrand’s oldest patient was 94 which gives Mrs U another fifteen years in which to consider help!